Florence, Venice, Siena Fall 2005


Sunday, October 16th, 2005

picture gallery

After another night of coughing, insomnia and work at the computer, I woke Jan at 6:30 and insisted on leaving the hotel room where I was feeling imprisoned. She agreed and we walked slowly hand in hand down down to the Arno through quiet streets freshly washed by street sweepers, the only noise that of garbage trucks. The city is active and loud until 3 AM but then remains quiet till 7:30. We went to the middle of the Ponte Vecchio, usually a furious hubbub, with only the company of a man with a broom and a walkie talkie, and watched the light come up over the river. Seeing streets by now familiar, we appreciated more of the architectural details evident at every turn and took delicious cappucino and apple pastries at the brightly lit “New York Café,” served by a tall elegant man in a black vest, white shirt and yellow silk tie.

Back in the room around 8, we rested and showered and then set out again in pursuit of the neoplatonic beauty which the city offers to its lovers. But this time I wanted to see it pagan form, feeling a bit satiated with crucifixions and madonnas. We walked to the Uffizi to see if there was a chance of getting in, but the line was endless at 9:30 a.m. so we went around a couple of corners to the Bargello, which the green guide and Ricksteves said was underrated. The turreted palace, police station and jail was another civic museum, and provided just what I wanted: tits, asses, penises attached to beautiful bodies in three dimensions. There were marbles and bronzes and ceramics, many of them images of the God Bacchus, including Michaelangelo’s famous early work, and there were splendid sculptures of birds of many feathers produced by an artist I never heard of named Giovanni di Bologna. The building was uncrowded for the first hour we were there, and in most galleries one could take pictures, though not with flash and not in the ones containing the Donatellos and Michaelangelo.

We had a kind of quiche in a café and decided to head for more Michaelangelo in the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo, passing along the back of the Duomo on the way and appreciating its immense size through the web of scaffolding that covers most of it. Passing building after building branded with the ubiquitous Medici coat of arms, we paid a hefty fee to enter the Chapel of the Princes, which was also largely covered by scaffolding inside and out. Entering the tomb felt like entering a pyramid of the Pharaohs”overwhelming in grandeur but more in arrogance and morbidity. The chamber is not wide but hundreds of feet tall, lined in black marble inlaid with multicolored stone panels and illuminated only from the dome on top. Eight huge sarcophagi upon which stand 30 foot figures of their inhabitants are set into the octagonal walls. The whole things smacks of Darth Vader or the Lord of Mordor, and I found it more disturbing than tacky”an expression of dynastic wealth not humbled by but appropriating the power of Death. Ironic to have this all in a church where you worship a God of humility and compassion whose central mission was to cleanse the church in his time of materialism. Now I sound like the Florentine Savonarola, who left no monuments.

The adjoining New Sacristy is the three star attraction designed by Michaelangelo and containing several of his sculptures. After the hugeness of the Chapel of the Princes”all this remember inside a church”its more modest scale and muted gray and white colors were less impressive, and for me disappointing. I had studied this room in art history and been told how great were the sculptures by many authorities, but by this time I was less than sympathetic to the Medici family, and it looked to me that Giulio’s neck was too long, the figure of Dusk’s head was placed at the wrong place on his shoulders, Night’s feminine body looked like a male with breasts, and Day was unfinished. Compared with the many other Renaissance interiors I ‘d been admiring in Florence, the architecture of this chamber was overcluttered with familiar ornamental devices.

We had a nice lunch of pasta and a sliced beef urugula salad and then returned to the Fiorentino room for another rest. But despite the lack of sleep the night before and my continuing occasional cough, I was restless and Jan decided we should go to the Brancacci chapel on the other side of the river. We arrived at 4:30 and allowed to remain 15 minutes by a beautiful young woman with a Maria Callas look. I hadnt been eager to go”I seemed to remember seeing it when we had visited Florence in 1969”but the restoration and new lighting made the small chapel radiant with color and lively portraiture. The most famous image of Adam and Eve’s despairing departure from Paradise is a small unobtrusive panel, and the bright pink of the punishing angel’s cloak brightens up even this tragic episode with what seems to have been the young artist’s favorite color.

Since it was nearby, neither of us were flagging, and they were open later than any museums, we decided to head over to the Boboli gardens to get a view of the city and spend some time in a more natural setting. Fortified by gelato we passed through the gargantuan fortress of the Pitti Palace and climbed the terraced mountainside as the light got richer and more angled. The gardens are not as well maintained as they would have been under their owners, with unmowed lawns and untrimmed trees in many areas. The Neptune fountain with splashing water, artificial grotto and genuine mallards and carp, caught the changing late afternoon light and as we climbed higher grand prospects of the city of Florence came into view. Just as we were about to head back down, I noticed a terrace at the end of the path, and at the top of the stairs a splendid new prospect opened before us”the hills to the south of the city, including the Church of San Mineato, a crenellated tower on the horizon and a green expanse of olive groves and conical cypresses that looked like the typical Tuscan landscape we look forward to entering after returning from Venice.

We walked back through narrow streets filled with small opulent storefronts displaying original renaissance and ancient treasures for sale, and watched the sunset on the Ponte, where Jan arranged for us to exchange picture taking with a romantic young Asian couple. By the time we got back to the room there was just time to shower before Brenda showed up for our evening dinner engagement. I was tired and ravishingly hungry. It took quite a while to figure out dinner plans and Brenda wanted to show us a café that’s a famous poet’s hangout, but by the time we reached there at 8:15, I almost passed out, so she got me some leftover bits of bruschetta, and then we hiked on to our rendezvous point with her partner Don in ZaZa café in the Mercado square. Over a meal with mixed reviews, we enjoyed conversation covering 35 years of our pasts.

Voyage a Cythere

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

picture gallery

Jan awakened Thursday morning around 8, just as I finished writing, and we packed our suitcases, paid the bill and shmoozed with Sandro, who it turns out is not the concierge but since last week the new owner of the Fiorentino. Looking like a sad, ethereal and beautiful figure in a Botticelli painting, he told us he’d been an accountant in Venice, but during a two-week vacation had discovered that his life was boring and decided to buy this hotel from the former fisherman and his family who had owned it. Nevertheless he was lonely, he said, and he was looking for someone to share his life.

In a light intermittent rain we found our way back to Villa Antenori, an unusually fine looking example of an urban palazzo we’d passed several times in our wanderings. I wanted to see what they looked like inside, behind their forbidding facades. It seemed to be open to the public and housed a wine merchant of the family that built it in the fifteenth century. I found its interior more harmonious than any I had seen, including the Michaelangelo tomb, especially in its combination of traditional furnishings and modern amenities. We roamed in the courtyard, sneaked upstairs to the first floor and higher to see what a top floor loggia was, and walked away with some wine brochures.

After another trip to the central market for groceries to eat on the train, we hauled our bags to the station to catch the 1:30 to Venice. We both got upset upon discovering that Jan had read the tickets wrong and our train had just left, but it turned out another one left 40 minutes later.

The approach to Venice is a fantasy voyage. The train traverses a long causeway in the Adriatic before reaching terminus at the island commonwealth. Exiting the station you face the Grand Canal lined by oriental filigree and heavy baroque palaces and are engulfed by a furious hubbub of tourists. At a row of ticket windows you buy three day passes for the Vaporetti, the boats providing public transportation, and as you advance to the dock it feels like entering Disneyland. Only this Disneyland is mildewed and rotting and covered with advertising banners and graffiti, and its air is thick with humidity, pollution and sewage.

Debarking from the Vaporetto at Rialto bridge, the sense of crowding, commercialism and delapidation intensified, We bought gelati to fortify us in climbing the steps and penetrating the crowds with our awkward baggage, and followed the smell of the fishmarket to guide us to our hotel. We found the discreet bronze sign of Al Mercanti on a quiet and uncommercial alley. The inside of the building reminded me of Villa Antenori–ancient ceiling beams, brick walls and stone stairs integrated with new plaster, and rich carpets, fabrics, furniture and fixtures. Our first floor room up four flights of stairs was designed by a professional decorator with a large budget. Marble floors, silk brocade pillows, curtains and spreads and collector prints on the walls. Jan led me to the balcony in the vestibule from which one could look down the alley and see a marble statue of a naked pagan god standing in a lit alcove of a wall, its broken white reflection shimmering in the black water of the Grand Canal.

I was again feeling shaky at this late dinner hour, so we found a quiet restaurant around the corner -Antica Trattoria ai Tosi–and were fortified by a fine modest dinner of spaghetti, lasagna and salad.

Friday 5 AM

Yet another night without sleep. I spent it working on this journal or sitting in the steam bath I made of our bathroom to loosen the thickening mucous in my lungs. How can body and mind can take all this punishment and keep coming back for more? Good news: the laxative I bought yesterday worked and the exercises from chiropracter and physical therapist have just about eliminated back pain.


Sunday, October 16th, 2005

picture gallery

After another sleepless night, my cough subsided enough for us to perform the long postponed rites for which Venice is named and famed. Euphoric to begin with, we walked out the door of the hotel and found a different city.

The sunshine dazzled, the sky shone lapis blue, the buildings sparkled. We strolled down the shadowed “Calle” back toward the Rialto and found the gothic arched open-air fishmarket that had been an empty stone platform the previous afternoon packed with excited fishmongers and customers and with trays of squid, octopus, shrimp, and prawns. We made our way through the adjoining open air vegetable market and climbed the Rialto bridge and looked down the Grand Canal at a scene of unreal richness and beauty. This was what we came for–we and the millions of pilgrims who arrived here for the last thousand years: an ancient work of art that you can walk and ride around in.

We boarded Vaporetto 1 and found seats near the bow. Each second of the trip presented a new spectacular view: a gorgeous palace, a hanging garden, a luxurious gondola, the opening of a side canal down which one could see a world of bridges and towers, a church with a façade in classical, baroque or uniquely Venetian style. And within minutes, the whole overwhelming prospect transformed as the boat moved from one bank to the other and followed the waterway’s serpentine curves.

Around one, the banks widened and the road ahead changed from a narrow river to a wide expanse of sea scattered with distant islands of towers and domes outlined against a vast sky. The right bank ended in a peninsula on which stood the cathedral of Salute–health. The left bank revealed the climbing tower of the familiar St. Mark’s Square, the anticipated climax of the voyage. I was grateful to be looking at much of this display through the tiny frame of the camera’s viewfinder, both to preserve the memory of it, and to contain my present impressions.

The vaporetto emptied at the San Marco quay, and the wonderland sensation gave way to claustrophobia that reminded me of the crowding we had seen in the many frescoes of both heaven and hell. Jostelled along by a mob of fellow gawkers, past stand after stand of souvenir hawkers, I noticed a monstrous apparition growing on the horizon, blocking my view of the sea and the islands:
it was a cruise ship taller than any of the towers of Venice and as long as St. Marks plaza itself, heading straight for us, with mobs of tiny people crowding its decks–a barbaric invasion of the grossest modernity laying claim to this ancient sanctuary. I stood on line to use the public bathroom, and the dour woman at the turnstile told me the three day pass I flashed her would not work here and it would cost a euro to urinate. As we approached the famous square, along with endless lines of people waiting to enter tower, cathedral and palace, we saw the two huge facades under renovation covered with billboards advertising corporate sponsorship by Mazda and a hotel chain. My fatigue returned, so we wound our way back to the hotel through the shadowed labyrinth of tiny streets, tunnels and bridges between St. Marks and Rialto.

It was a relief to be back in our neighborhood, where the bright sunshine made every square meter of brickwork or pavement or façade or alley prospect into a visual and intellectual feast. After lunch in a quiet nearby square, our table at the edge of a tiny canal wharf, we penned a route that would end on the quay facing the island of Iudecca through the maze on our map. The souk-like layout of the city makes this a challenge, since almost no streets are longer than 100 yards, and many are dead ended at cul-de-sacs, wharves, and gates. Each of the twists and turns presents new delights–fountains, entryways, rooftop gardens and clotheslines, contrasts of texture, color, form that have evolved and ripened over the ages, walls and tunnels darkly framing the sundrenched images ahead.

Every few minutes, the slot canyons of streets and canals open to a small piazza–a space by a church or civic building graced with cafes and occasionally a few trees. A third of the way through our itinerary, we stopped at one and I sat in the sun on the steps of a little bridge and nodded off into a luscious slumber. Jan awakened me after a few minutes and urged we go back to the hotel, where I tried to continue my nap as she started trying to locate a doctor. The Blue Cross contact phone numbers she had brought yielded only discussions with people in India and no medical referral, while I regained strength, encouraged by an ability to sleep without coughing. We went out again, for a short sortie, and found ourselves at a flea market in the piazza of San Silvestre. This was a strictly local event, where kids played and residents sold stuff they collected. Jan needed a hat to replace the crummy one she had purchased from a stall in San Marco. On one of the tables we found a finely crafted Tyrolean chapeau and managed in pidgin Italian to bargain the seller to an acceptable price. The first full night sleep in over a week came early.

Saturday morning is again brilliant weather. We decide to spend two more nights in Venice and abandon the idea of going to Padua or Verona before meeting our Elderhostel group in Siena. There’s no room at the Mercanti but after a short search we find another place nearby, The Vecie Poste: the room a little less money, a lot less plush, bordering a small canal and graced with the occasional fragrance of sewage. In contrast to the robotic filipino gentlemen who ran the Mercanti, this place has a manager who’s a real concierge–the brother of the owner of a fine restaurant with the same name next door.

Roaming the immediate neighborhood we find an internet access place, located at the back of a blue jeans store, reached through a pigeon-shit caked alley strongly smelling of sewage to catch up on email. I tire and we return to our room with picnic lunch for a rest. Jan has found announcement of free concert at 4:00 in the Church of Salute. We leave early and now expertly find San Silvestre Vaporetto stop. We sit on the steps of this cathedral, looking out at the islands in the lagoon and San Marco in the afternoon sun and then walk around it through back streets which reveal some of the infrastructure repairs that appear all over the city. Part of a small canal has been sealed off to replace ancient leaking lead sew49er pipes and stone and wood foundations of houses and to raise the pathway a foot to protect it from flood tides and provide space underneath for the electrical lines and other infrastructure that are now attached to the outside of buildings. The old stones of the original walkway are stored in piles to be put back in place and create the illusion of antiquity. This reminds me of the restoration of Walden Pond I saw a couple of years ago in Massachusetts. Human impacts had created so much erosion that the banks were all bulldozed and new rock and sand and vegetation were installed and stabilized with heavy steel netting that was only visible if pointed out. Restoration like this is observable everywhere in the city. The effort, skill and cost required must be astronomical, and as it proceeds, the old decaying Venice will indeed turn into a new theme-park version.

We returned to Salute in time to get good seats for the concert of Bach solo cello suites played by a passionate young artist sitting by himself in a chair in front of the altar. For the last section of the program–a concerto duet with organ–he disappeared into the loft and then appeared again up high to take bows with the young woman accompanying him. The cavernous cathedral made the music reverberate, but watching the performers hands and facial expressions helped to articulate the sound. The longer I sat the more I could appreciate the wealth of detail in the baroque interior, the hanging lamps of varied and coordinated design, the huge torsioned sculptures of the four evangelists leaning on the high pediments, the dozens of additional figures nestled in alcoves, and the light coming through the windows reflected off the water outside getting more brilliant as the afternoon deepened. The full baroque experience converged on the sculptural complex atop the high altar: a triumphant woman holding an infant in her arms, an old man to the right kneeling at her feet with arms outstretched in gratitude and to the left an ugly figure in flight covering his face. The guidebook explanation hit home–this church was a tribute to the Virgin Mary erected by the Venetians in gratitude for the cessation of the plague in the late seventeenth century. Its name, Salute, means health.

After the concert we took a walk along the great promenade facing the island of Giudecca across the lagoon. The wide walkway and the broad expanse of water was a welcome contrast to the exquisite but confining vistas of the calles and rivos where we’d spent the earlier part of the day and most of yesterday. Before taking the Vaporetto back home, we had a drink in a café on pilings over the water. The setting sun painted Jan gold in her new Venetian hat.

The Church and the Synagogue

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

picture gallery

Sunday morning the glorious weather gave way to a familiar Italian drizzle. We packed and moved our bags to our new lodgings al Poste Vecchio and Jan picked our destination as San Giacomo dell Orio, a thirteenth century Church our map indicated contained a mixture of styles from thirteenth to seventeenth century. It was like a treasure hunt to find this new neighborhood, probably less than a quarter of a mile away, but a half hour of map reading and staring. The whole city is only 3 by 5 kilometres in extent but it contains 354 bridges, 177 small canals, 153 churches (each an architectural beauty), and 127 small squares.

We arrived at San Giacomo just as mass was starting at 11:00 and had little choice but to sit down and join the local congregation of many ages, including young children, which filled all the seats. The service started with a folksong “Hallelujah” hymn accompanied by guitar, the same rendition they use in Jan’s mom’s Presbyterian church. After a few short readings from the Bible by members of the congregation, the priest took the pulpit. He was dressed in full regalia, green robe, white stole and more, and he looked the traditional part, with a bald crown and long, thick wavy white hair on the sides. His voice was fluent and cultivated but he read his sermon, and though I couldn’t understand any of it, I got the impression it was provided by a higher authority. It was a good time to meditate and to admire the inside of the church, which included a 14th century wooden ceiling, a sixth century column, a stone lombard pulpit, and many paintings that we couldn’t get close to. At the end of the sermon when the congregation rose, we made a discreet getaway out the door of the nave and admired the tower and some bits of celtic looking frieze embedded in the wall in another little square out back where restaurant waiters were setting up chairs and tables under tents.

After another rest and picnic back in our room–we try to limit restaurant meals to one per day–we headed for the railroad station to reserve our seats to Siena. The same district of Canareggio contains the ghetto, home of Shylock and Jessica in The Merchant of Venice. To get there we needed to thread through crowds in a tourist district, but once we crossed the Cannareggio canal, the neighborhood was quiet. The buildings on either side of the narrow streets were taller than we’d seen elsewhere, one of them eight stories. On one wall was a stone plaque with names of people who had between 1915 and 1920 “fallen in the war, for the fatherland and the community recorded with love and pride.” It included my mother’s maiden name, Gruenwald. We crossed a bridge and came out on a large walled square with several shops selling Judaica. On one side was a holocaust memorial and a Jewish nursing home.

At the Ghetto museum we paid for a tour of the old synagogues. Our guide was a tall elegant woman with huge eyes and a mane of wild kinky hair. She wore a diamond studded star of David around her neck. She led us upstairs and unlocked a door to the German synagogue, a windowless room, tiny by comparison to any of the churches we’ve seen, with an elaborate gilt ark at one end and bima or pulpit at the other. She went through her spiel in highly accented but good English, with a strange mixture of boredom, suppressed anger and imploring eyes. She told the history of the ghetto. Jews had lived all over the city in its early days, performing essential functions of money lending, today known as finance, that were forbidden to Christians. In the late fourteenth century, an edict was issued requiring the Jews to live in this small section of the city, which was gated and locked at night. Whenever they left this section they had to wear yellow armbands. Rather than one community, there were four, distinguished by their countries of origin–two northern European Ashkenazi and two Spanish and African Sephardic–each with its own synagogue. The synagogues themselves all have upper gallieries, where women could watch but not participate in the services, separated from the men below by latticework screens. The communities thrived and the population increased to over 8000 people packed into a tiny space, requiring the construction of more and more stories on the buildings.

In the next synagogue, the Polish Ashkenazi, she continued the narrative. The ghetto was opened by Napoleon and the Jews were allowed to move out, but then closed again after his defeat, and then opened again with the establishment of the Republic in the later 19th century. The fascists under Mussolini required all Jews to register and move back to the ghetto. As the war proceeded, they turned the lists over to the Nazis, who came in and deported all the inhabitants to concentration camps. Only a few families returned, but now about 400 Jews are left in Venice.

The third Synagogue, a Sephardic one, was elaborate Baroque, designed by Longhi, the architect of Salute Cathedral. Jews were forbidden from practising trades or owning land, so the construction of the synagogues was performed by hired craftsmen. Our guide attends this synagogue but doesn’t live in the ghetto. She told us she would prefer to since it is now one of the more desireable neighborhoods in Venice because of its lack of crowds and proximity to the railroad station and parking garage. In response to our questions, she went on to describe the difficulty of being a resident of this dream city. The desire for preservation means that you cannot do any renovations or repairs on the ancient buildings without official permission. When a pipe broke under her living room floor, she wasn’t allowed to tear up the antique terrazo, but had to put in a whole new plumbing system. People have to carry their groceries through the narrow streets and over bridges. There is nowhere for children to play. And the taxes, rents and property values keep going up as rich Americans and Japanese buy residences in the city which they usually leave uninhabited. So the indigenous population of Venice has decreased by 25% in the last five years.

A Shakespearean experience of Venice–what appears as good is not so good. Jews are victims of Christians, loyal to one another but also their own worst enemies. The city of love and glamor has an underside of greed and disfunction.

The rain got heavier. The canal smelled stronger. We came back to our hotel and dressed for dinner at the classy restaurant affiliated with our hotel, the Poste Vecchi. We took the tourist menu. The pasta with funghi (mushrooms), the sea bass and the crème caramel were all extraordinary. Next to us sat two parents and a college age daughter from Australia. He was a lawyer and she was a professor. Our conversation lasted late.

At 2:00 A.M. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I worked on the journal until 5:30 A.M.