Saturday, March 24, 2018

Forbidden Fruit

Some pomodori cuore di bue (Beefsteak tomatoes) at the Rialto market

The other day at the Rialto market I found myself in the extremely uncomfortable position of listening to the wife of a friend recount how he'd been caught cheating red-handed.

Now, contrary to the still rather common Anglo-American depiction of Italians as considering even the sternest moral laws as no more than quaint suggestions, the kind of transgression I'm writing about is taken very seriously by Venetians. There are certain sacred bonds that are not to be betrayed under any circumstances, and to have to listen to an account of such a betrayal while the injured party stands just a few yards from you is awkward, to say the least.

"A few yards from you!" some readers might exclaim. "At that distance she must have been shouting her story of treachery for all to hear!"

But, in fact, my friend's wife stood just a couple of feet from me. For she was not the injured party in question. This wasn't a banal matter of marital infidelity. It was something far more scandalous, and hardly to be borne by its victim, who stood a few yards off behind a long table of fruits and vegetables heaped up in terraced trays.

You see, it was this fruttivendolo, from whom her husband and she always bought their produce, who'd caught her husband in the act--in flagrante delicto--of buying a head of cavolo verde (Romanesco broccoli) at the stall of another fruttivendolo.

And, as the Restoration playwright William Congreve famously put it, "Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Fruttivendolo scorn'd."

Because her husband is American and has lived here for less than two years, he wasn't even aware at the moment of his discovery of the gravity of his crime, or of its dire consequences. I suspect he might easily have missed, or even shrugged off as a merely passing pique, the daggers flung his way in the look of his usual fruttivendolo.

Not until his next visit to his usual fruttivendolo did he learn the dire truth of the situation. 

Having been guilty of the same disloyalty myself, I'll admit that nothing could seem more innocent to we naive perpetrators of such crimes than our decision--on certain rare occasions--to give a bit of our business to another vendor.

After all, it's not as if we're committing the truly perfidious act of buying our produce from one of the supermarket chains. From those "convenient," "one-stop," "contemporary" solutions to every tourist need which are likely (in tandem with the resident population's continued decline) to one day drive every independent Venetian fruttivendolo and butcher and fishmonger out of business.

On the contrary, it's precisely our concern for the survival of independent produce stalls that motivates us to sometimes shop at more than just one.

But, go ahead, try this high-minded argument with your usual fruttivendolo and see how far it gets you. You might as well tell your wife that the three or four children you've secretly fathered with other women while you've been married were motivated by a similarly noble commitment to the broader social good.

The fact is, once you've been found out, your usual fruttivendolo may continue to take your money in exchange for his (or, less frequently, her) produce, but the conversation and good cheer, the samples and little discounts, the bright-eyed greetings you were used to receiving become things of your long lost salad days, so to speak.

What you get instead is cold disdain, intended (as any escapee from an Italian-American family will surely recognize) to inspire in you an overwhelming sense of guilt and regret: a sad, burdensome sense of what you've thrown away.

Again, I speak from experience, having left what would strike any Venetian fruttivendolo as a wake of infidelity behind me in my more than seven years of living here.

When the fruttivendolo near our old apartment in Sant'Elena surmised that my regular visits to his stand weren't quite frequent enough to supply all of our produce needs, he not only stopped speaking to me when I did show up to buy from him, but once--and this was the ultimate insult, clearly intended as such by him and understood as such by me--he charged me what was clearly the (much higher) tourist price for a couple of apples I bought from him, having not even bothered to weigh them.

This was as unmistakable a message as those dead fish wrapped in newspaper in The Godfather. I never bought another thing from him after that. I'd always preferred the wider selection and better prices on Via Garibaldi anyway.

And this is where the Cavalleria Rusticana-like passione of the average fruttivendolo leaves an outsider like me bemused: they have made their point--and driven off a loyal customer.

More recently, I've had a similar experience with a fruttivendolo in the Rialto market--in spite of the fact that this particular proprietor's limited range of fruits and vegetables left me no choice but to buy from another vendor as well. In fact, it was loyalty alone that kept me buying from the smaller stall when I could have simply bought everything I needed from a single larger vendor. 

It was loyalty, too, that kept me buying from that stall even as the service degenerated and I felt the all-too-familiar chill of my Rialto fruttivendolo's silent, wounded hauteur. Indeed, I continued to stop by his stall even after he neglected to add a bunch of parsley to a bag of bottoli I'd bought (an addition which is second-nature to a fruttivendolo, as it's one of the few inviolable commandments in Italy that no matter how one prepares artichokes parsley must always be used).

But it was no use. I'd violated his Trust and our relationship was, at least in his opinion, irreparable.

Of course I told none of these things to my friend's wife the other day at the Rialto. For she seemed to assume that after a period of penance, during which her husband would demonstrate an appropriate degree of remorse and a renewed devotion, he would be accepted back into the good graces of their usual fruit stall.

It was not my place to trample on such hope. Though I doubt it's possible for one who has sinned against their usual fruttivendolo to ever really get right again with these kitchen gods. 

For that reason I now buy almost exclusively from one stall.  


And when I don't, no cheating spouse, no spy, no conspirator against any crown--whether of heaven or earth--has ever taken more precautions against being found out.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Titian's "Sapienza" in the Antechamber of the Biblioteca Marciana

Painted in 1560, Titian's Sapienza (or Wisdom) was situated on the ceiling of the antechamber some 30 years before it became the Statuario Pubblico discussed in my last post, when the room still served as a classroom for the study of rhetoric, philosophy and ancient Greek.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Do Look Now: In the National Archeological Museum of Venice

A 16th-century bust of a sober man in the classical style is haunted by a Hellenistic sculpture of the dionysian figure Silenius from the 3rd century BCE

The National Archeological Museum is part of the Museo Correr (though it hasn't always been: I remember it having its own entrance and ticket when I first visited in 1991). The core of the collection dates back to the 16th century, and to what was originally the private collection of two Grimanis: Cardinal Domenico Grimani, patriarch of Aquilea in the first half of the century, and Giovanni, who in 1587 donated the whole thing to the Venetian Republic in the interest of insuring that its citizens would forever have the “memoria delle cose antiche.

By 1596 the collection was installed in the very room where the images of this post were taken: in the grand antechamber of the even grander Biblioteca Marciana. It was one of the first public museums in history, and though there is no record of exactly how the works were initially displayed, in the 1730s Anton Maria Zanetti il Giovane made a very detailed and illustrated inventory of the collection as it existed at that time--with a very precise illustration of the works' arrangement in the antechamber.

After the fall of the Republic in 1797, the collection was moved more than once from its original location. But in the 20th century it was returned to its original home in the antechamber and, having grown through other significant donations, was expanded into rooms of the Procuratie Nuove, which it still occupies.

All of it is worth a long look. But on the day I took these images I mostly limited myself to the antechamber which, with the exception of a very few sculptures now displayed in the rooms of the Procuratie Nuove, appears just as it did in Zanetti's illustrations of the space from over 250 years ago.

I imagine some might say that the identification of these works is not quite up to contemporary museum standards. Though each work is in fact identified, they aren't arranged according to any obvious categories such as historical period.

But it's precisely the absence of the contemporary categories to which we're accustomed that makes the experience of looking around this antechamber so interesting. All around you are the kinds of classical works from which the Renaissance took its inspiration and ideas; all around you is the literal embodiment of a certain period's ideas about what could or should be done with antiquity, how it should be thought about and looked at and arranged, how it could be used (or, as Nietzsche pointed out, abused). And though we can draw a line from the 18th century notions of history and scholarship on display in this room to those of our own time, it may not be as straight or as simple a line as we are prone to imagine it. It may not be a single line at all. It may split off into any number of directions. It may dead end.

In this room I'm struck, as I so often am in Venice, by juxtapositions--and the imaginative (and perhaps idiosyncratic and useless) play that they can inspire.

Of course, as one's visit to the Correr usually starts all the way at the distant other end of the Procuratie Nuove, by the time you make your way through everything else there is to see in the museum to the Biblioteca Marciana you may be too mentally exhausted to take in much of anything else. I find that I often am. And for this reason I suspect a fair number of visitors may not even make it all the way to the grand room of the Biblioteca, one of the city's exemplary spaces, with its paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, et al.

For this reason, there may be something to be said for walking the whole length of the Procuratie Nuove to start your visit with the Biblioteca Marciana. Especially if you're visiting in the morning or noon hours, when the marbles in particular benefit from the fugitive sunlight coming through the windows.

And when you're done admiring the sculptures in the antechamber of the Biblioteca Marciana, don't neglect to look up above you at Titian's painting Sapienza, which really deserves a post all its own--the next one. 

A Greek statue of Demeter from the end of the 5th century BCE stands before a Roman grotesque

A large Roman candelabrum base from the last quarter of the 1st century CE

This ancient Greek head from one of the rooms in the Procuratie Nuove seems best seen in sunlight

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Boatloads of Venice

As entertaining as something like Carnevale may be for visitors, I think the life of a city is more truly found in the everyday rather than in spectacle. Indeed, Carnevale has become so completely divorced from the actual resident life of the city that Venice's non-resident mayor bumbled into a rare moment of lucidity when he recently suggested that the most popular spectacles of Carnevale--eg, the Flight of the Angel from the campanile of San Marco--be moved to sites on the mainland better able to host the huge crowds. For what at first sounds like just another one of his moronic (and usually self-interested) suggestions, turns out to aptly depict the degree to which Carnevale has become so largely an alien presence (some would say, alien nuisance) to resident life here that it might as well be held anywhere else. Any living cultural ties that bind it specifically to this city are gone (at least for most Venetians over the age of 8 or so.)

And yet, in spite of those ruling interests which seem only too happy to wipe out all of resident life in order to better host spectacle, daily life here subsists--and it still tends to involve boats. As in the image above of a boatload of books.

Or the one below: which shows how we moved our bed last year from our old apartment to our new one.

Alas, I've noticed none of the benefits from transporting our bed this way that I'd speculated about some years earlier:


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Frigid Grandeur: Palazzo Zenobio, W.D. Howells, and A Shiver of Recognition

Palazzo Zenobio's Sala degli Specchi

Last Sunday, on a cold foggy afternoon, I found myself for the first time in Palazzo Zenobio, which is also known as the Collegio Armeno Moorat Raphael, as it's been the property of the Padri Armeni Mechitaristi di Venezia since 1850, and remains a center for Armenian studies. It was open to the public last Sunday day because it's currently hosting a large exhibition of contemporary painting, about which I think it best for me to politely refrain from commenting. It wasn't to my taste, but I encourage anyone in town to check it out and form their own opinion.  

What struck me, though, was not the exhibition, and not only the notable late Baroque decoration of the palazzo, but the cold. The entire place was unheated--so that my ungloved hands quickly became stiff and numb--and the experience of walking among its many icy rooms reminded me that not all that long ago (at least in terms of the long history of Venice) it was not uncommon for even the grandest Venetian palaces to be without heating.  

After more than 7 years of living in Venice I recognized that I was finally experiencing first-hand and on a grand scale what I'd only previously read about, most memorably in William Dean Howell's marvelous account of living in Venice in the 1860s entitled Venetian Life

Now that the end of winter is in view perhaps it's a good time to post a large excerpt from Howell's description of unheated palazzi and how, more generally, 19th-century Venetians made it (or suffered through) the season. On a sunny day like today in Venice, after a rather long stretch of wet gray weather (including a window-rattling run of bora winds from the northeast), it's finally possible to read the passage below without an uncomfortable shiver of sympathy. 

The Germans have introduced stoves at Venice, but they are not in much favor with the Italians, who think their heat unwholesome, and endure a degree of cold, in their wish to dispense with fire, which we of the winter-lands know nothing of in our houses. They pay for their absurd prejudice with terrible chilblains; and their hands, which suffer equally with their feet, are, in the case of those most exposed to the cold, objects pitiable and revolting to behold when the itching and the effort to allay it has turned them into bloated masses of sores. It is not a pleasant thing to speak of; and the constant sight of the affliction among people who bring you bread, cut you cheese, and weigh you out sugar, by no means reconciles the Northern stomach to its prevalence. I have observed that priests, and those who have much to do in the frigid churches, are the worst sufferers in this way; and I think no one can help noting in the harsh, raw winter-complexion (for in summer the tone is quite different) of the women of all classes, the protest of systems cruelly starved of the warmth which health demands.
The houses are, naturally enough in this climate, where there are eight months of summer in the year, all built with a view to coolness in summer, and the rooms which are not upon the ground-floor are very large, lofty, and cold. In the palaces, indeed, there are two suites of apartments—the smaller and cozier suite upon the first floor for the winter, and the grander and airier chambers and saloons above, for defence against the insidious heats of the sirocco. But, for the most part, people must occupy the same room summer and winter, the sole change being in the strip of carpet laid meagrely before the sofa during the latter season. In the comparatively few houses where carpets are the rule and not the exception, they are always removed during the summer—for the triple purpose of sparing them some months’ wear, banishing fleas and other domestic insects, and showing off the beauty of the oiled and shining pavement, which in the meanest houses is tasteful, and in many of the better sort is often in-wrought with figures and designs of mosaic work.
All the floors in Venice are of stone, and [...] all the floors are death-cold in winter. People sit with their feet upon cushions, and their bodies muffled in furs and wadded gowns. When one goes out into the sun, one often finds an overcoat too heavy, but it never gives warmth enough in the house, where the Venetian sometimes wears it. Indeed, the sun is recognized by Venetians as the only legitimate source of heat, and they sell his favor at fabulous prices to such foreigners as take the lodgings into which he shines.
It is those who remain in-doors, therefore, who are exposed to the utmost rigor of the winter, and people spend as much of their time as possible in the open air. The Riva degli Schiavoni catches the warm afternoon sun in its whole extent, and is then thronged with promenaders of every class, condition, age, and sex; and whenever the sun shines in the Piazza, shivering fashion eagerly courts its favor. At night men crowd the close little caffè, where they reciprocate smoke, respiration, and animal heat, and thus temper the inclemency of the weather, and beguile the time with solemn loafing, [Footnote: I permit myself, throughout this book, the use of the expressive American words loaf and loafer, as the only terms adequate to the description of professional idling in Venice] and the perusal of dingy little journals, drinking small cups of black coffee, and playing long games of chess,—an evening that seemed to me as torpid and lifeless as a Lap’s, and intolerable when I remembered the bright, social winter evenings of another and happier land and civilization.
Sometimes you find a heated stove—that is to say, one in which there has been a fire during the day—in a Venetian house; but the stove seems usually to be placed in the room for ornament, or else to be engaged only in diffusing a very acrid smoke,—as if the Venetian preferred to take warmth, as other people do snuff, by inhalation. The stove itself is a curious structure, and built commonly of bricks and plastering,—whitewashed and painted outside. It is a great consumer of fuel, and radiates but little heat. By dint of constant wooding I contrived to warm mine; but my Italian friends always avoided its vicinity when they came to see me, and most amusingly regarded my determination to be comfortable as part of the eccentricity inseparable from the Anglo-Saxon character.
 I daresay they would not trifle with winter, thus, if they knew him in his northern moods. But the only voluntary concession they make to his severity is the scaldino, and this is made chiefly by the yielding sex, who are denied the warmth of the caffè. The use of the scaldino is known to all ranks, but it is the women of the poorer orders who are most addicted to it. The scaldino is a small pot of glazed earthen-ware, having an earthen bale: and with this handle passed over the arm, and the pot full of bristling charcoal, the Veneziana’s defense against cold is complete. She carries her scaldino with her in the house from room to room, and takes it with her into the street; and it has often been my fortune in the churches to divide my admiration between the painting over the altar and the poor old crone kneeling before it, who, while she sniffed and whispered a gelid prayer, and warmed her heart with religion, baked her dirty palms in the carbonic fumes of the scaldino. In one of the public bathhouses in Venice there are four prints upon the walls, intended to convey to the minds of the bathers a poetical idea of the four seasons. There is nothing remarkable in the symbolization of Spring, Summer, and Autumn; but Winter is nationally represented by a fine lady dressed in furred robes, with her feet upon a cushioned foot-stool, and a scaldino in her lap! When we talk of being invaded in the north, we poetize the idea of defense by the figure of defending our hearthstones. Alas! could we fight for our sacred scaldini?
The entire text of Howell's Venetian Life can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenburg at

It's one of the best books from any period that I've read on Venice, and I can't imagine another 19th-century book in English that even comes close to giving such a full and entertaining account of Venetian life.

For a bit more about Howells, and some images of one of the Grand Canal palazzi in which he lived during his four years in Venice as the United States consul, visit

A 180 degree panorama of the Sala degli Specchi