Monday, July 16, 2018

"May You Live in Interesting Times" - Ralph Rugoff, the curator of Venice Biennale Arte 2019

Ralph Rugoff & Paolo Baratta - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) This morning the press in Venice had the opportunity to meet Ralph Rugoff, the curator of  next year's La Biennale 58th International Art Exhibition. Rugoff chose the intriguing title, "May You Live in Interesting Times," based on what he initially thought was an ancient Chinese curse. However, after he did some research, he learned that there never was any such ancient Chinese curse, even though Western politicians have made reference to it in speeches for over a hundred years. So, Biennale Arte 2019 is titled after a counterfeit curse -- false information repeated over the decades -- fitting for the times in which we live.

Honestly, the moment I read the press notes, I knew something was wrong. I thought the word "curse," which was in the second paragraph, had been mistranslated. The translator came over and assured me the translation was correct. If I had read through all the notes before reacting, I would have learned the story behind the title. Now that I know the story, I think it is a terrific choice for Biennale Arte 2019, and made Rugoff's decision to keep the title after knowing there was no such curse even more fascinating. 

Rugoff, an American based in London, is the Director of the Hayward Gallery, considered one of the leading public art galleries in the United Kingdom. He said that Paolo Baratta, the President of La Biennale, called him on the phone, and said, "This is Paolo Baratta. Do you know who I am?" and invited him to lunch in Rome. Rugoff said he was thrilled and excited, although he did not know exactly the reason for the invitation. They had an excellent lunch, and Rugoff found Baratta to be a "highly cultured, civilized man."

Rugoff said that he had attended Biennale Arte in the past, and found it exhausting -- there was enough art to see in two weeks, let alone two or three days. May You Live in Interesting Times aims to "welcome its public to an expansive experience of the deep involvement, absorption and creative learning that art makes possible. This will entail engaging visitors in a series of encounters that are essentially playful, taking into account that it is when we play that we are most fully 'human.'"

Ralph Rugoff & Paolo Baratta - Photo by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia
Rugoff is the very first UK-based curator to helm the exhibition, and the first American since Roger Storr in 2007. He didn't give details about which artists he would invite, but said he was committed to doing a great amount of research, to travel around the world and talk to artists."How much can I learn that I don't know now?" He said he was not going to appoint assistant curators, or have a committee, but invite artists based on recommendations of other artists. He said he trusted artists the most, and "every good curator is only as good as their network of artists."

I found Rugoff's energy to be friendly and engaging, an American whose demeanor has been enhanced by years of living abroad. He very much believes that art is a conversation. Hopefully, May You Live in Interesting Times will provoke some compelling dialogue. Who knows what interesting times we will be living in next May?

May You Live in Interesting Times, La Biennale di Venezia 58th International Art Exhibition will run from May 11 through November 24, 2019, with previews on May 8th, 9th and 10th. Go to La Biennale for more information.

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Feast of Redentore 2018 in Venice - Correcting a few misbeliefs

Redentore - fireworks in Venice 2018 - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) I was going to write the definitive Feast of Redentore Venice Blog post this year, but after conferring with the head Capuchin friar in Venice, he convinced me that everyone was too busy, and that it could wait. There are many errors floating around the Internet that need to be corrected, which, hopefully will be attended to in the near future. (However, since I am me, I couldn't resist correcting a few right now:-)

Pontoon bridge for Redentore 2018 - Photo: Cat Bauer
I am glad that most information has been corrected to reflect that Redentore takes place on the third Sunday of July, not the third weekend, or third Saturday. As I wrote back in 2016, in the year 2001. the first Sunday fell on July 1st -- as it did again this year. Hence, today, the third Sunday of July, was the Festa del Redentore, with the fireworks celebration starting the evening before, on the second Saturday.

Capuchin friars at Pesca di Beneficenza

What is the difference between a Friar and a Monk?

The Capuchins, or the Ordine dei frati minori cappuccini, are not monks. They are friars. Monks live in a cloistered community. Friars are out and about, in service to society. For example, there are monks at San Giorggio della Maggiore. There are friars at Redentore.

Detail of cross inside the Church of Redentore- Photo: Cat Bauer

Catholics believe in Miracles

You cannot be a saint unless you perform at least two miracles. That is a rule.We seem to forget that although an open, international town, Venice is a Catholic city inside a Catholic country -- after all, Italy, however secular it wants its image to be, is where the Pope has his headquarters. Yet Venice has always maintained its own unique form of Catholicism, with a deep connection to Byzantium. Venice has been excommunicated on more than one occasion by Rome.

The Senate of the Venetian Republic were big-time Catholics, in addition to being merchants, who truly believed that building a church to Jesus Christ the Redeemer would stop the plague. Which it did. This miracle is what Venice still celebrates 441 years later.

Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli - Photo: Cat Bauer

The Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli was not torn down to build Redentore

I have no idea how this misinformation has spread, but reality is that the small Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli still stands to this very day. The date on the photo in Roman numerals is: MDXXXVI, which translates into Arabic numbers as: 1536. More about this church in the future.

Winnings at Pesca di Beneficenza Redentore 2018 - Photo: Cat Bauer

What did I win in the Pesca di Beneficenza this year?

And now, most importantly: what did I win in the Pesca di Beneficenza, fishing for charity, or a lucky dip? I won some creme rinse, a useful sponge and, most peculiarly, a pencil emblazoned with the United States of America's Stars & Stripes.

Click on the link to read past posts about Redentore, which I have been writing about for decades:

Feast of Redentore 2017 in Venice - Same as it ever was

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

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Venice books - Two terrific historical thrillers by local author Gregory Dowling

The Four Horsemen by Gregory Dowling
(Venice, Italy) Since my Venice blog readers are passionate about La Serenissima and all her intrigues, and appreciate history, art and culture -- and are very smart -- I have a couple of book recommendations that are right up your calle. The books are also great for people who simply are looking for a good read.

Venice's own Gregory Dowling has begun a series of historical thrillers starring Alvise Marangon, a likeable cicerone, or tour guide, who becomes a reluctant spy for Missier Grande, the chief of the secret service police during the Venetian Republic. Set in the 18th century, the books are compelling and addictive, and will transport you into deep into the inner world of Venice with all its mysteries and conspiracies. In fact, they are so good that I had to completely reassess my impression of Gregory Dowling.

I first met Gregory years ago when we were both writing for the Time Out Venice guide book. I would see him every so often around town, and thought he was a very British, rather conservative professor at Ca' Foscari University. So when I recently read Ascension, his first novel in the series, (published in 2015 -- I'm late to the game) I was surprised to find his entertaining style of writing more American than British, until I remembered that his specialty is American literature. But that still didn't explain the riveting premise of the book, or account for the intricate plot.

Ascension by Gregory Dowling

Amazon's description of Ascension:

"Venice in 1749 - the city has lost its political and financial primacy but has become Europe's pleasure capital, famous for its gambling dens, its courtesans, its hectic carnival, its music, art and theatre - and the most highly organised secret service in Europe."

Alvise Marangon, the protagonist, was born in Venice but raised in England by his actress mother. Alvise has returned to Venice and works as a tour guide mostly for young wealthy Brits on the Grand Tour, together with his sidekick Bepi, a gondolier, wise as only a gondolier can be. Alvise speaks perfect Venetian and English, an ingenious touch that allows Gregory plenty of freedom to be creative with his dialogue and witty observations.

Because Alvise is a cicerone, we are also privy to historical insights, told in an engaging way -- far more fascinating than reading a dreary guide book about Venice. Most of the locations are real and vividly drawn, so you can easily imagine yourself traveling around the city, and if you get lost, there is a period map on the inside cover so you can find your bearings. And because Gregory Dowling has a First Class Honours Degree in English Language and Literature from Christ Church, Oxford, the books are supremely intelligent page-turners. It's a tasty combination that I found irresistible. 

Gregory Dowling -  The Four Horsemen book launch at Hotel Saturnia - Photo: Cat Bauer

When I started reading the second novel of the series, I thought I had solved the mystery as to how Gregory had managed to write such brilliant books. In the foreword to The Four Horsemen, Gregory writes:

"After the publication of Alvise Marangon's adventures in Ascension a number of people asked me where I had come across this story. The answer, as so often in Venice, is in the archives. ...The archives contain all the reports drawn up by Venice's legions of confidential agents and spies. ... However, not all the files and folders have been scrutinised. I found on one shelf a folder that had been pushed to the back, bound with a leather strap that seemed never to have been loosened..."

"Ah, ha!" I thought. "Gregory did not think up the plots at all, he translated them!" Even translating ancient Venetian documents into a riveting story for contemporary readers was a feat in itself -- but the foreword was an explanation as to how this staid British professor had suddenly flipped and become so cool. However, I still had many questions: how did he manage to create such a likeable protagonist as Alvise Marangon from those dusty documents? And all those details? Just the amount of research he put into the books was boggling. I wanted to speak to Gregory to learn how he did it.

Amazon's description of The Four Horsemen:

"After reluctant spy Alvise Marangon is arrested in a tavern brawl, he is summoned to meet the Missier Grande, head of the city's powerful secret service. Rather than being expelled from the city, he is coerced into a top-secret investigation of the mysterious death of one of the service's agents and the existence of a mysterious secret society. Formed by four rakish noblemen, it is known as the Four Horsemen and dates back to the Ottoman Empire. As Alvise delves into the case, he finds all the hallmarks of assassination and corruption, and is soon profoundly out of his depth and on the run."

Luckily, in true Venetian synchronicity, Gregory and I both happened to attend Rosella Mammoli Zorzi's book launch of Wonder and Irony, a guide book of Palazzo Ducale told through the eyes of Henry James (Wonder) and Mark Twain (Irony) that was convened inside the Doge's private chapel. We entered through the grand Porta della Carta at about the same time. I dashed up to Gregory. "I just read your books. I borrowed them from (a mutual friend). I love them! I think they are brilliant! But, in the foreword of The Four Horsemen, you said you found documents in the Archives -- "

Gregory said, "Oh, I made that up."

I was astonished. "You invented the foreword, too? You mean you actually invented the plots, and the characters, and then you invented the foreword to explain it all? That is so clever!"

Gregory was grateful for the compliment, but also excited about going inside the Doge's private chapel, which had been long out of the public eye and recently restored. "Yes. Thank you! Isn't this great?" 

Doge's private chapel - Rosella Zorzi's book launch - Photo: Cat Bauer
I am revealing his secret, but I think it should be revealed because it underlines how very talented Gregory Dowling is. It seems I had the wrong impression of him. He's got that Oxford mind, but years of living in Venice have made him Venetian, capable of creating such a likeable narrator as Alvise Marangon, a narrator out of his depth yet still able to conquer whatever Venetian intrigues come his way. There are so many books set in Venice that just scrape the surface, written by people who only know the city superficially. Gregory Dowling's books are a genuine bridge between the inner sanctum of Venice and the outside world. I hope they will soon be translated into Italian so more Venetians can enjoy them, too. 

I cannot wait for the next Alvise Marangon historical thriller.

"Dowling teaches American literature at a university in Venice. It shows. Ascension blends a laconic, amused style informed by American detective literature with a profound knowledge of Venetian geography and history. Stylish, clever and gripping." The Times

"Alvise is a terrific character, the murder mystery is absorbingly ingenious and, if you are a sucker for Venice, the sights, sounds and smells of its streets and canals ooze up from the page." Daily Mail 

"Wonderful...I loved being transported to my favourite time in my favourite city." Andrea di Robilant

"A special thriller set in the Venetian past -- its colours and intrigues so vividly described." Francesco da Mosto

"A wonderful page-turner with a fabulous cast of characters." Historical Novels Society

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