Thursday, June 6, 2013

This morning, when I sit down to breakfast in the shaded courtyard of my hotel, I am greeted by a woman with a friendly smile, and she brings me a frothy cup of cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa and a basket of fresh croissants. With apologies to Gérard Mulot in Paris, these are my very favorite croissants in the whole, wide world.

I smile with recollection and then bite through the flaky exterior of the pastry into a warm center, filled with apricot preserves. The memory of it sends a shiver of delight down my spine and I am reminded of Proust and his tea-soaked madeleine. It’s been five years since my first visit to the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo and I’ve returned twice since. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

With the taste still lingering on my tongue, I set off on a leisurely walk toward Piazza San Marco. Breakfast has reminded me that Venice is a feast for the senses. I stop at the Rialto Market to savor the smell of fresh produce and the pungent odor of local seafood. I wander in and out of shops to admire the rich colors of Murano glass sculptures and vases and jewelry. And I pause to listen to the sweet sounds of street musicians, and the whir of motor boats down the Grand Canal.

It’s only when I reach the square that I realize just how crowded Venice is in the high season. It was Henry James who once said: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” They’re everywhere, with their cameras and baseball caps and flip flops—day trippers from Hell. But this year they’re not alone. Within the last week, an international art exhibition known as La Biennale di Venezia has opened at the Giardini and the Arsenale, and so the city is congested with celebrities and art critics, too.

Eager to escape, I duck into the campanile and ride the elevator to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From here, I look toward the island of San Giorgio Maggiore where there is a gigantic and rather incongruous inflatable figure of a naked, pregnant woman, created by the British artist Marc Quinn. I recognize it immediately as one I saw years ago—in smaller form—on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London. I don’t much like it here, either.

I take pictures of the church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal, which was covered in scaffolding the last time I was here, and then scan the city with my telephoto lens, until it rests upon the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. It’s breathtaking, really, this sea of red tiled roofs.

Back in the square, I’m directly across from the Doge’s Palace on which hangs a banner advertising a major exhibition of paintings by Éduoard Manet, titled “Manet: Ritorno a Venezia.” I’ve been looking forward to it for months. I check my watch and see that it’s nearly noon. The line at the entrance is short and the sun overhead is bright and warm. The dim light of a cool museum sounds appealing.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the contrast of two famous works of art—Manet’s own “Olympia,” unveiled to great controversy at the Paris Salon of 1865, and its inspiration, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” painted by the Old Master in 1538. I’ve seen both before, the former at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the latter at the Uffizi in Florence. But here they stand side-by-side, and the influence is striking and the interpretation modern. I like Manet very much, and many of my favorite paintings are here, including “The Balcony” and “The Fifer” as well as a view of “The Grand Canal” painted by the artist on a visit to Venice in 1875.

Hungry for more, I decide to head straight for the Biennale, although just outside the Doge’s Palace I get my first glimpse with an unofficial exhibit titled “This is Not A Czech Pavilion.” Intrigued, I peek inside and see a ring of shoes on the floor, each covered with the kind of disposable, blue booties that cable TV repairmen wear when they visit your house, so as not to soil the carpets with their muddy boots. It’s odd, especially when I notice a handwritten message scrawled on the wall. It reads: “This is the best piece at Venice Biennale.”

God, I hope not.

I take the vaporetto down to the Giardini and stand in line to buy a ticket. It’s a beautiful area of the city that I’ve never explored before, leafy and lushly green. The man at the ticket counter asks where I’m from and he is genuinely pleased that it’s Vermont. It seems he combats the boredom of his job by counting places and I’ve just added a rare specimen to his collection.

My first order of business is to find a place for lunch, but along the way I can’t help but stare at the entrance to the Spanish Pavilion. Inside there is a pile of rubble. There’s really no other way of saying it. It’s just rubble. A sign on the wall explains that the artist is Lara Almarcegui and her work “is not just formal or ontological, but also social, in that it points to the historical nature of the construction materials she uses, and addresses the complex interactions between materials, economy, and space. It is also political, insofar as she understands and places architecture and urbanism, their developments and historical dimensions, within the framework of the complex ecology of our social and political fabric.”

There’s a man standing next to me and we exchange a significant look. He doesn’t speak English and he doesn’t have to. We’re both thinking the exact same thing—

Bullshit.

There. I’ve said it, and I mean it. Give me a Manet any day over an “installation” of rock. Still, I have to admit, I’m having a rollicking good time already. Bad art really is kind of fun.

I walk toward the Central Pavilion, past a row of people lounging on porch chairs, all the way around to the back to a outdoor café, where I break for lunch. It’s just a simple Caprese salad, but the tomatoes are sweet and the buffalo mozzarella tangy. It rejuvenates me, and before long I’m ready to explore again.

It’s time to brave the United States pavilion. I must say I was warned about this one in advance, but it still didn’t prepare me for the horror of it all. A review in The Guardian put it this way: “America has an irritatingly complex ‘ecosystem’ composed of millions of fribbling bits of paper, string and gum by Sarah Sze for which there is simply not world enough and time.”

And there it is. “Fribbling bits” of this and that—balls of string, plastic water bottles, rulers and clamps—crawling up the front of the building like a tinker toy skyscraper on steroids. There’s a brochure that attempts to explain it all and it says something about inscribing a “fragile personal order upon a disordered universe,” but really The Guardian had it about right when they said there wasn’t enough time in the world to care.

Feeling apologetic and unpatriotic about the U.S. entry, I enter the Russian Pavilion next. There’s a hole in the ceiling from which a bucket hangs, and in the room next door I can see a large pile of gold coins on the floor. Before entering to investigate, a woman hands me a clear umbrella and I grin. It’s always a good sign when you’re handed a prop. It means interesting things are about to happen!

It becomes immediately apparent that the umbrella serves as a shield to protect me from being struck by the coins that are falling continuously from the roof. I’ve been instructed to bend down and interact with the coins, and to place a handful of them in the bucket next door. They’re stamped TRUST, UNITY, FREEDOM, LOVE. And, “The artist guarantees the value with his honor, 2013.”

And that’s just the start… There is also a man upstairs who is dressed in a business suit, riding a saddle astride a beam that he has reached with the help of a tall, wooden ladder. Every now and then he reaches out with his left hand and sprinkles sawdust on the floor below. On the wall, there is a motto that reads: “Gentleman, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality and…”

There’s a brochure explaining all of this—of course there is—and it says something about a “cave womb” and the “anatomical construction of a myth,” but really who cares? This may peg me as one of those day trippers from Hell that I maligned earlier this morning, but the whole thing strikes me as perfectly ridiculous, but also pretty neat.

I spend the rest of the afternoon lazily walking through Ai Weiwei’s forest of stools and inside of what looks like a huge Fabergé egg. There are tables of artfully composed law directories, walls covered with plastic Mickey Mouse toys, and wire coat hangers twisted into the shape of turtles. There is a painting of a hairy man’s ass crack aptly titled “The Butt (2007),” which amuses me, and the clothed mannequin of an armless child wearing a sun bonnet that seems like a creepy version of Little House on the Prairie, which does not.

I’m still chuckling over the Biennale later when I sit down for dinner at La Porta d’Acqua. I laugh harder still when the waiter greets me by singing “Buona Sera” by Dean Martin. He’s quite a character.

I order some fried zucchini blossoms and stuffed shells with Bolognese sauce, but no wine. When I got sick in Germany two years ago, I developed a neurological condition called dysautonomia. Alcohol makes the dizziness and the nausea worse. It’s a hard enough thing to explain in English let alone a foreign language, so I just decline politely. The waiter sniffs at me suspiciously and says: “What kind of woman are you who no drink wine?” I shrug.

As I wait for my dinner to arrive, I pull out my iPhone and check for e-mail. Last night, I reserved a seat on a bus tour leaving tomorrow for the Veneto hill towns of Bassano del Grappa, Asolo, and Marostica. The Avventure Bellissime website says it’s one of their “most popular day trips from Venice!” Alas, it’s not. They’ve just cancelled.

Undeterred, I decide to go on my own, and so I pull up the Trenitalia website to check on train departure times. When the waiter comes by with the food, he looks over my shoulder and asks where I’m going. Bassano del Grappa, I say. I ask if he’s been there and does he recommend it? “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “the grappa.”

It’s the alcohol he likes. Of course it is. He’s Italian.

Come to think of it, though, quite a lot of art is inspired by booze. Quite possibly a lot of what I saw today. How else to explain the hairy ass crack? And a potent green liquor known as absinthe was equally famous in Manet’s day as the seductive muse of poets and painters alike.

I look down at my solitary glass of water, and I feel suddenly left out of an entire history of creative thought. Perhaps I should try some grappa in the morning. I’m already an academic with a tendency toward verbosity. I can certainly write a convincing brochure. All I really need for a change in career is a decent sense of irony and some “fribbling bits.”

Sunday, June 8, 2008

This morning, I’m eating a relaxed breakfast in the courtyard of the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo. I have a map of Venice spread out before me on the table, alongside a cappuccino and a warm croissant filled with apricot jam. This is the only day on which I’ve imposed any kind of structure. I have a 9:55 AM reservation for a “Secret Itineraries” tour of the Doge’s Palace, a 3:00 PM tour of the Moors’ Clock Tower, and an 8:30 PM ticket to see La Traviata at “Musica a Palazzo.”

Instead of walking, I take the Vaporetto the length of the Grand Canal, and step off at San Marco. A line has already formed at the palace door, but my printed confirmation allows me entrance past the guards, where I’m given a red sticker to wear and a bench on which to sit and wait. It’s a small group in the end, and we all seem to enjoy the privilege of slipping past the normal crowds into more private chambers and passageways behind locked doors.

Our guide is surprisingly young, but well informed. She has a knack for telling stories with the right mix of historical accuracy and narrative suspense. She tells us all about the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten,” and she takes us to where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes. We walk through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, to the Torture Chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes, across the infamous “Bridge of Sighs,” and into the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.

Afterwards, I have plenty of time to spare. The sky is clear and bright, so I decide to seize a prime photo opportunity. I buy a ticket for the campanile and ride its elevator all the way to the top. By now, my legs are used to climbing hundreds of tight, spiral steps. The dome of St. Peter’s, Giotto’s bell tower in Florence, the Torre Guinigi in Lucca, and Torre del Mangia in Siena — these were athletic challenges, worthy of the view and the reward of gelato afterwards. In comparison, this is such a painless journey I almost feel like I’ve not earned the right to enjoy it. Almost, but not quite.

From here, I can see the full length of the piazza, from the Correr Museum at one end, to St. Mark’s Basilica on the other, with its cluster of Byzantine domes. There are neat rows of café tables below, scattered souvenir stands, and flocks of pigeons that menace tourists in search of crumbs. In every direction, there is a visible coastline in the distance beyond a maze of red tiled roofs. It’s there that cruise ships lie in wait for the day trippers to return.

Once back in the square, I decide that tradition is more important than reward. I buy a dish of a gelato from the window at “Gran Caffé Chioggia,” and in the shade of the terrace consume a scoop each of chocolate and hazelnut. Then, in the sudden urge to shop, I make a turn around the square, where I buy a colorful strand of beads and a matching bracelet from Antica Murrina.

At three o’clock, the ticket to the clock tower I reserved online turns into an unexpected private tour. No one else has booked the slot. I enter with the guide through a narrow green door just below the arch and can’t believe my good fortune. We have free reign of the place for the next hour and she allows me to create my own “secret itinerary” on the spot, pausing wherever I like to ask questions and take pictures.

I’m able to look out through a porthole just below the dial that displays the signs of the Zodiac. I can see past the basilica, where the lines are long, towards the lagoon and its twin granite columns, the winged lion of St. Mark on the left, St. Theodore and his crocodile on the right. Further on we pass the clock mechanism and the two rotating wheels that display the hours and minutes of the day, one in Roman numerals, the other in Arabic. Climbing higher, we stop to appreciate the original three Kings that once bowed and tipped their hats to Mary and the baby Jesus, but now perform only on Ascension. Finally, when we reach the top, I’m able to stand next to the two bronze giants — known as “Moors” — who take turns striking the bell with their mallets. At a cost of twelve Euros, this must be the great unsung bargain of my entire trip to Italy!

The remainder of the afternoon passes quietly, with no particular agenda. For dinner, I stop at a restaurant on the Dorsoduro side of the Accademia Bridge and linger to enjoy an improbably grand view of the Grand Canal. A brazen sparrow is watching me intently. As soon as I finish with my vegetable pizza, he lands on my plate and takes off with a bit of crust in his beak.

Although I’m reluctant to head indoors on such a lovely night, I’ve reserved a seat at a performance of La Traviata at “Musica a Palazzo.” It’s a just a short stroll away, back over the Accademia Bridge and beyond Campo Santo Stefano, where I’m delayed by watching a troupe of singers and dancers performing in folk dress. The entrance to the place is unmarked and difficult to find. I make the required turn at the church of Santa Maria Zobenigo, go over the bridge, and along a small canal past the awning of “Agenzia Ippica,” which offers off-tracking betting on horse races. Still, I have to walk by twice to locate the proper door, and meet a confused couple doing the same.

Inside, the theater is as intimate as the location is obscure, lit entirely by candles. It is indeed an old palazzo, and as the scenes of the opera shift, so too do the performers and the audience. We begin on folded chairs in the hallway, move to a drawing room, and then finally for the death scene, to a bed chamber.

The quality of the production is impressive, given its size. There are three characters supported by musicians on violin, cello, and piano. It is true that, at first, both the casting and the costuming seem odd. Alfredo’s blue oxford shirt and tweed jacket make him look more like a college professor than a young nobleman, and the baritone who plays his father appears young enough to be his son. But there are also clever touches, apparent only because the performance is taking place feet away, rather than far removed on stage. When Alfredo throws money at Violetta at the end of Act II, in an outburst of spite that recalls her days as a courtesan, I’m surprised to see it’s U.S. dollars, which given the exchange rate these days, seems like even more of an insult. The bastard!

By the end of the night, talent and atmosphere have combined to draw me into a unique experience. On my way back to the hotel on the Vaporetto, I find myself humming the chorus of Verdi’s “drinking song.”

Be happy, the wine and the singing
And laughter beautify the night
Let the new day find us in this paradise

For two more days, at least, it will.