Wednesday, November 28, 2018

A World Without Venice and Rhinos? Magnificence vs. Luxury

Pietro Longhi, Clara the Rhinoceros, 1751
(Venice, Italy) Both Venice and the Rhinoceros are endangered species, ravenously desired and unthinkingly consumed by a proliferating consumer class. That was the gist of the symposium on November 24th at Palazzo Contarini Polignac entitled Beauty and the Beast: Venice and the Rhino.

The rhinoceros has walked the earth for more than 50 million years, and is the world's oldest living mammal. Its horn has become one of the most costly luxury items on the planet -- a rhino is killed every eight hours to satisfy demand. The rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for millennia, but increasingly it is being used as a status symbol to display success and wealth.

Humans have projected all sorts of miraculous attributes onto the rhino horn, just as humans have projected all sorts of fantasies onto the city of Venice. According to legend, Venice was founded on March 25, 421 A.D., nearly 1,600 years ago. Its monumental churches and impressive palaces still stand after centuries, nestled inside the lagoon. Nowadays, each day an average of 60,000 tourists descend upon a city composed of 54,000 residents. Both the rhino and Venice are in danger of becoming extinct.

Palazzo Contarini Polignac
Catherine Kovesi of Emporium is a historian of early modern Italian history at the University of Melbourne and was the organiser and curator of Venice and the Rhino, which kicked off with Bikem de Montebello, the Managing Director of Palazzo Contarini Polignac, giving us a fascinating history of the palace.

In 1900, American-born Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943), heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, bought the 15th-century palace on the Grand Canal as a birthday gift for her husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac, a composer of music, who died shortly thereafter. Winnaretta was a great patron of the arts, and Palazzo Polignac was the center of her extraordinary contributions to the cultural life of Venice, a city both she and Edmond cherished. Today, thanks to the efforts of the de Montebello family, Palazzo Contarini Polignac remains a vibrant center of Venice's cultural life.

Catherine Kovesi & Gigi Bon - Venice & the Rhino - Photo: Cat Bauer
Catherine Kovesi's focus is on debates surrounding luxury consumption in the early modern world, and is a lover of Venice herself. One day, while wandering around the city, she stumbled upon Mirabilia, the art studio of Gigi Bon, an artist who feels closer to the rhinoceros than to people. In fact, Gigi's rhino sculptures so riveted Catherine that they inspired the symposium itself.

In 2017, worldwide luxury retail sales totaled 1.2 trillion euro. Personal luxury goods -- the core of the market -- have grown 191% since 1995. Catherine took us on a journey that started with the long history of the word "luxury" compared to the word "magnificent." Centuries ago, luxury was a vice, not a virtue, and meant "excess" and was used to describe people who overly indulged; luxuria meant "lust," and was a sin linked to women. By the Elizabethan period the word was associated with adultery.

Magnificence, on the other hand, described the elite who spent on a large scale for the greater good, which was expected of members of the aristocracy. Speaker Lynn Johnson, Founding Director of Nature Needs More said, "Follow the money." There are more than 150 churches in Venice. Venetians did not need another church, yet they built magnificent houses of worship and enhanced them with precious works of art. The pursuit of luxury was practiced by the mediocre and those with vain ambition. The magnificent believed true success is what you left to the world.

Mass-produced souvenir picture of Clara produced by Van der Meer
One of a kind: Clara the rhinoceros in 18th-century Venice and the tale of a missing horn was a pre-recorded video presentation by Glynis Ridley of the University of Louisville, who, unfortunately, could not make it to Venice. In 1741, a Dutch sea captain named Douwemout Van der Meer obtained a female Indian rhino calf named Clara, whose mother had been killed by hunters. When Clara was a month old, she had been adopted by Jan Albert Sichterman, the director of the Dutch East India Company, and grew up wandering around his property, becoming quite tame.

Sichterman either sold or gifted Van der Meer with Clara, who took her on a grand European tour where she became a sensation, appearing before emperors and kings. She was only the fifth rhino seen on European soil since the fall of the Roman empire. In 1751, en route to Venice for an appearance at Carnevale, she shed her horn, captured in the painting of Pietro Longhi (photo at the top). Glynis Ridley was a winner of the Institute of Historical Research Prize for figuring out just who the heck that rhino was at the 1751 Venice Carnival.

Shih Li-Jen & Rhino sculpture at Vernissage - Photo: Cat Bauer
The symposium brought together an international group of scholars, artists, poets and writers, who explored the intersections between Venice and the rhino. Other speakers included Jane Da Mosto, an environmental scientist and Executive Director of We Are Here Venice, whose topic was Venice: A Fragile and Resilient City; Sophie Bostock of the Orientalist Museum in Qatar, who spoke about Clara in Qatar: The story of a Meissen porcelain; Bruno Martinho of the European University Institute, whose topic was Rhino horns and scraps of unicorn: The sense of touch and the consumption of rhino horns in early modern Iberia; and Sabrina Ardizzoni of the University of Bologna who presented the Taiwanese sculptor Shih Li-Jen: His Oeuvre, and his vision of the rhino and unfettered consumption. Shih Li-Jen said, "My goal is creating rhino sculptures to inspire people to help save these creatures."

Rhinoceros, detail from mosaic floor, St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, thirteenth century.
Photo ©Mark Smith
The earliest representation of a rhinoceros in Venice is in the Basilica of San Marco in the 13th-century pavement close to the altar of the Madonna Nicopeia. As a child, Gigi Bon was so fascinated by that rhino that she identified more as a rhinoceros than as a little girl. For over 25 years, she has developed her unique vision of the profound links between her own identity, the city of Venice and the predicament of the rhinoceros. It is believed that particular image of the rhino was inspired by Marco Polo's description of his travels to the Island of Basma of what he thought were unicorns:

"There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick... 'Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of it being of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, 'tis altogether different from what we fancied."


Cat Bauer with poet Ronna Bloom
Sprinkled throughout the symposium was the inspirational poetry of the Canadian poet Ronna Bloom, Poet in Residence at Sinai Health Toronto, which she read beautifully. I found it deeply moving. Ronna's poem about Venice, Gracious Hospitable City, captured perfectly the unique, almost inexplicable love that so many people seem to feel about Venice. I am always amazed at how many people fall in love with Venice, some to the point of obsession, and how many frequent visitors -- who don't live here -- become possessive of the city, like jealous lovers pining from afar. In contrast, Ronna's pure poetry struck just the right key:

Gracious
Hospitable
City
by Ronna Bloom
I appeal to the gods of the lagoon, to the dirty filthy spirit
of boat spume and masks discarded,
Help me understand Venice.
 
To Fondamente Nove which ends at the water: throw me in.
To the man who took my suitcases on board answering his cell phone,
"Mama, dimmi." Speak to me.
I appeal to the resistant force inside
who holds her secret heart secret
so no one can make a Las Vegas Doge's Palace of her love.
"Everyone loves Venice." And I nod.
But does everyone have a hidden life revealed to them
in the mirror of a place they've never been?
A place that's cherished and also grieved?
I knew I had to come, but for years avoided it,
as though beauty were a wound I couldn't look at.
Remembering Rilke, beauty is the first touch of terror we can still bear.
How to care for a place being shipped into the sea by its keepers
sold to the highest bidder and
offered as a knock-off of  itself to those who don't know?
While the ones who do know
age perilously on the slow #1 vaporetto to work --
or from human overwhelm, take a cart into the calle
and ram it into a group of zombie-eyed walkers
with small flags from around the world --
or who host every minute they walk out their door --
or restore paintings in the back of Accademia to repair the sky.
Whose dogs' back legs shake like spider webs as they crouch --
and whose stringed instruments break the fragile air
the way the high tide siren does --
who still marvel at their own churches, arches, light and water
with anyone who'll look, whispering the beauty is free --
and lean out their tired windows and smile.
Respect does not mean being left alone, but cared for.
Who can answer that in a language everyone will understand?
Dimmi.

The symposium stressed that a new conversation is needed. That the Academy needs to talk to industry. That the Academy needs to talk to conservationists. That the conversation needs to move away from battling the feeders of consumer demand towards understanding consumer motives. That creating empathy in consumers is probably a losing battle. That conservationists need a new paradigm.

Venetian artists: Fabrizio Plessi with Gigi Bon at Vernissage - Photo: Cat Bauer
Afterwards, there was a Vernissage for Rhinoceros: Luxury's Fragile Frontier in the Magazzino Gallery, Palazzo Contarini Polignac's exhibition space, featuring the art of Gigi Bon and Shih Li-Jen, and the poetry of Ronna Bloom, which is open to the public until December 21, 2018.

I haven't spent such an enlightening and educational day in a long time, surrounded by intelligent, thoughtful and magnificent people. Venice needs more symposiums like this. Kudos to Catherine Kovesi and Bikem de Montebello for organizing the event, and thank you to all the speakers for imparting their gems of wisdom.

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Remembering Venetian Valeria Solesin, Killed in the November 2015 Paris Attacks

Graduation day in Piazza San Marco - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) One of the perks of graduating from Ca' Foscari, Venice's university, is that the ceremony takes place in Piazza San Marco, one of the most breathtaking venues on the planet. On November 16th, thousands of friends and relatives witnessed young students take that monumental step on their life's voyage.

Three years ago today, the residents of Venice gathered in Piazza San Marco for a much sadder event: the candlelight vigil for Valeria Solesin, a 28-year-old Venetian PhD candidate at Sorbonne University, killed by ISIL on Friday, Novemember 13, 2015 in the Paris terrorist attacks.

I will never forget that evening when so many citizens of Venice gathered together in solidarity for Valeria. It was an extremely emotional and poignant moment, with thousands of candles lighting up the dark. Here is an excerpt of a post I wrote at the time:

Candlelight Vigil for Valeria Solesin - Venice Victim of Paris Terrorist Attacks


Candlelight Vigil for Valeria Solesin in Piazza San Marco - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Thousands of people gathered in Piazza San Marco last evening to honor Valeria Solesin, a young, beautiful, intelligent Venetian woman, one of Venice's -- and the world's -- brightest stars, who was senselessly murdered by Daesh aka ISIL in Paris on Friday night. We gathered to remember all the Paris victims, but especially Valeria, a hometown girl. About seven thousand residents of Venice, young and old, made the journey to the center of the city to hold aloft twinkling points of light, illuminating the darkness that has descended on the planet. Many Venetians arrived with their children.

Valeria Solesin
Valeria Solesin represented everything good, empowering and compassionate about Europe. She was a brilliant young woman, who deeply believed in peace, not war. Valeria grew up in Venice, graduating in 2006, then got her degree at Trento University. For the last four years she lived in Paris as a PhD candidate at the prestigious Sorbonne University, studying sociology, with an emphasis on family and children. For years, she was a volunteer for Emergency, an Italian NGO that provides assistance to the civilian victims of war -- the extreme opposite of everything ISIL represents. She was killed at the Bataclan concert hall at age 28.

Click to read the entire post.

Graduation Day 2018 in Piazza San Marco - Photo: Cat Bauer
An award in Valeria's name is now in its second edition. The Premio Valeria Solesin is a competition for students at Italian universities inspired by the young Venetian researcher. Prizes go to the best Master's research theses on "Female talent as a determining factor for the development of the economy, ethics and meritocracy in our country," a topic to which Valeria had dedicated her work. It is open to students of 34 top Italian universities, public and private, and is supported by 14 companies, with Allianz Worldwide Partners promoting the 1st prize. Winners of the second edition will be announced on November 27, 2018.

Valeria Solesin was doing important work on the role of women in society. It is an extreme tragedy that her life was stolen from her at such a young age. Let us hope that the memory of the young Venetian woman inspires others to follow her path, and that positive female energy helps to balance the planet.

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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Juliet texts emojis but Romeo forgets his smartphone: Shakespeare in Venice at Hotel Danieli

Shakespeare in Venice at Hotel Danieli - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) William Shakespeare, the world's most famous English playwright, set one third of his plays in Italy. This rich exotic backdrop allowed him the freedom to tackle difficult subjects that might have been taboo on his native soil.

On Friday evening, November 9, I was a guest at the magnificent 14th century hall of Palazzo Dandolo, home of Hotel Danieli, and the stage for Shakespeare in Venice, a Journey through Shakespeare's Works, a condensed, contemporary version of five of the Bard's plays set in the Veneto.

The Merchant of Venice at Hotel Danieli - Photo: Cat Bauer
The quirky production, directed by Lorenzo Maragoni, whizzed through Romeo & Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello and The Merchant of Venice in about an hour with two young actors, Giulia Briata and Josh Lonsdale playing all the parts. They were accompanied by Giorgio Gobbo on guitar, who tossed the audience into a farcical key by singing the Beatles' Here Comes the Sun in falsetto when morning dawns and Romeo must flee Juliet's room after their wedding night.

Josh Lonsdale is not only an actor; the 26-year-old Brit also wrote the text. One of the best bits was when Juliet, about to drink the poison, sends Romeo a text message complete with emojis (smiley face, kiss, kiss) warning him that she is not dead, and not to overreact. Unfortunately, Romeo has forgotten his phone, and does not get the message...

Cocktail dinner at Hotel Danieli - Photo: Cat Bauer
After the performance, guests were treated to a cocktail dinner created by Chef Alberto Fol featuring food inspired by Shakespeare in Venice with tasty morsels like Insalata di latti di seppia con sedano e olive, Gallina Padovana con saor di cipolla, Zuppetta di pesci dell'Adriatico and Anatra arrostita alle spezi Orientali con salsa Peverada on the menu.

Dessert table at Hotel Danieli - Photo: Cat Bauer
Shakespeare in Venice is part of a collaboration between the Hotel Danieli, the Teatro Stabile del Veneto and the Chamber of Commerce of Venice and Rovigo, a cultural project whose aim is to promote Venice's uniqueness and cultural and artistic heritage through Shakespearean theatre and Post WWII nonconformist literature. Next up on December 11 is Art/Beat - from Beat Generation to Contemporary Art, a commemoration, in English, inspired by the term "beat" coined by Jack Kerouac 70 years ago, and performed by two actors and two musicians.

For reservations contact:
Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Alone in the Doge's Palace - Venice, Italy

Palazzo Ducale at night - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) Tonight I was alone inside the Doge's Palace with only the phantoms of the past. I had come from a book presentation in the Doge's Private Chapel. It was not the first time I have been alone inside Palazzo Ducale.

When I first arrived in Venice twenty years ago, I was fortunate enough to have an access-all-areas pass to the Doge's Palace to do some research, and could wander freely through the rooms rich with the Renaissance. I met a lot of ghosts.

Golden Staircase - Photo: Cat Bauer
There are so many tourists trashing the halls these days that I forgot what it looked like. Tonight, as I descended the Golden Staircase, I saw -- really saw -- a section of the floor for the first time, an optical illusion 5D Mary-Poppins-jump-through-the-pavement floor that threw me off. The floor did not seem solid at all; for few moments I was thrown back a couple hundred years.

5D pavement inside Doge's Palace - Photo: Cat Bauer
I jiggled my legs back to present reality, touched marble, and continued down Sansovino's Scala d'Oro. I met a female attendant leaning against the loggia. I was still dizzy: "What they built... what they built... so many years ago."

She was pragmatic. "Well, they didn't build it all at once. They built that section in 14th century; and that section in the 15th century, and that section in the 16th..."

"Yes, but, what have we actually built these days, in the year 2018?"

She thought, then said: "The Calatrava Bridge and MOSE."

I haven't had such a good laugh in a long time.

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