Monday, May 21, 2018

Travelogue 804 – May 21
Assumption into Heaven
Part Two


Below the tower of the Chiesa di Santa Margherita, the cafes were buzzing with chatter. I had taken my seat just below the forlorn tower. The church building, holding down one corner of the campo, was long ago converted into a university building. At ground level, the architecture of the tower is more entertaining than at its heights. Stone gargoyles guard its entrances. On the campo side there’s one door framed by pillars in relief. And just above the entrance, a dragon’s head is laughing.

The students stopped at the cafes and carried on in their cascading Italian, punctuated by many exclamations and giggling. Then they were off again, joining the streams of foot traffic crossing the spacious square. The students and the tourists formed most of the body of these ant trails.

There were locals, too. Men were setting up their tables in the square, where they would sell fish. Neighbours greeted each other, stood together and chatted. An old man caught water from the public fountain in his hand for his dog to lap up.

Refreshed and caffeinated, I crossed the square, pausing to admire the Scuola dei Varoteri, a fourteenth-century building, free-standing in the southern side of the square, built for a brotherhood of furriers, and serving it for four hundred years. I’ve read that in Mussolini’s day the building was briefly dedicated to a school of mystical fascism, a bizarre outgrowth of the times, a movement trying to marry the personality cut with mythology and the teachings of the usual rogues of nineteenth century philosophy.

I took to the alleys behind the square, looking for bookshops. It was a university neighbourhood, so I was confident I would find some good shops. I discovered in one alley a row of workshops producing masks for Carnival. The masks are handmade, and each workshop is small. The masks they produce are colourful and distinct. They represent a tradition that is centuries old. Carnival in Venice can be dated back at least seven hundred years in Venetian documents, and it’s undoubtedly much older than that. The masks are just as old, as far as anyone can tell. And they served more purposes than Carnival. They were generally accepted as a way to travel anonymously through the city.

In the sixteenth century, masks were put to use in a new way, in a new form of theatre that came to be called the Commedia dell’Arte. This was a form of farce brought to public squares, in which travelling troupes performed a host of stock characters improvisationally. Such stories as there were existed as guides for character cues. The art form became very popular in Western Europe, more popular in France in the next century than it ever was in Italy.

Over time, the masks for the Commedia dell’Arte evolved. Characters evolved and split into multiple varieties of their type, each with a specified mask. An example might be Zanni. This character started as the simple-minded but cunning servant, based on the impoverished ‘Giannis’ who came into Venice from the countryside.

The mask for Zanni was a half mask with a long nose. The longer the nose, the more stupid. Zanni’s stupidity was important. It’s what eventually split his personality. The plays needed clever Zannis and stupid Zannis, and these became the First and Second Zannis. Masks adapted. So did his costume. Zanni’s poverty was important. One Zanni wore patched clothing. The patches became stylized, and the character took on his own personality. The new Zanni became more acrobatic. He was a clown more than a participant in the plot. He took the name Arlecchino.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Travelogue 803 – May 17
Assumption into Heaven
Part One


I was drawing many verbal sketches while I was in Venice, taking notes. One day I discovered the Campo Santa Margherita. It seemed a very spacious square for the tiny city, and therefore a good place to find a place to sit in the sun. I took full advantage of that, finding rest there during several intervals in a long day.

The square is close to the great Frari church, a site I was eager to visit again because of its art treasures. The centrepiece is Titian’s ‘Assumption’, considered by some to be the masterpiece of the era. It was painted for this altar, and still hangs there. One has to admire it from afar, since it hangs above the altar. But the painting was drafted for that space, for that distance from its congregation. It stands almost seven metres tall. It is a beautiful piece, expressive and colourful, composed in three tiers, Mary rising above the heads of the apostles toward God the Father above.

There was more to see at Frari Church. I took particular interest in several of the tombs and monuments. There was, for example, the ghoulish opulence of the monument to Doge Giovanni Pesaro, erected in the mid-seventeenth century and set with a large host of allegorical statuary, including two black skeletons that would be the highlights of any carnival’s haunted house.

My first draw to the Frari was the monument to Antonio Canova. The piece stands out in this house of Baroque art. It was built in the 1820s by disciples of Canova, built according to a design Canova had drawn for a monument to Titian. The monument is a smooth marble relief of a pyramid. Placed on steps leading to a single plain doorway into the pyramid are allegorical Neoclassical figures portraying great grief. Inside is entombed the artist’s hand. So they say.

Canova became one theme for my trip. There was an exhibit at the Accademia dedicated to Canova and several contemporaries, opening a window into their shared time in Venice, and including works they gathered to send to Vienna in 1818 in honour of the wedding of Emperor Franz I. Pre-eminent among those works was Canova’s ‘Polyhymnia’. Visible in this sculpture was everything sublime about Canova, the sheen, the sensuality, and the beautiful line that captured the real sense of skin or textile, chair arm or pillow. I spent some time with the sculpture, enduring the camera flashes of drive-by aesthetes, every one of whom paused only long enough to take a photo.

Back at the Campo Santa Margherita, I ordered more coffee. I took stock of the great architectural variety on display in the square. Behind me was the (decommissioned) church that gave the campo its name. Now it belongs to the Ca’ Foscari University. The tower is unmistakably medieval, rising in faded brick, the wall facing the square broken only by two lancet windows.

It’s surprising how poetic a simple, unadorned wall can be – poetic in the sense that it says so much with so little. Time and weather have had their impact. The community replaced sections of the wall. They used what bricks were available. The surface became an aesthetic composition in texture and colour, made by humans, but accidental in its final state. I love architecture, but there’s more to my appreciation of old buildings than architecture. The effect this wall has on me, for example, is to create a silence that stands apart from the rumble of activity below.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Travelogue 802 – May 7
Walking Sketch
Part Two


The first church on this site was built in 1028, built as a monastic chapel. It was dedicated to St. Helena, one of Christianity’s great mother figures. Helena was mother to Constantine, the Roman emperor who made Christianity legitimate in the Empire.

Some historians have suggested Helena converted her son; some say the opposite. I’m inclined to think the former, based on my ten minutes of scholarship. It just feels right, maybe because of the strong class barriers to Christianity during the early empire. The cult was strongly rooted in the lower classes. Helena’s own roots were common. Se was an innkeeper when she met the Roman general who was Constantine’s father. It’s not certain the two were ever married.

In any case, Helena was devout, and she performed some services for the church that were never forgotten. In her old age, Helena travelled in the Holy Land. She built churches, including one at the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem and one on the Mount of Olives. She had a temple torn down, Hadrian’s temple on the site of Jesus’ tomb. She dug there for relics and miraculously found the True Cross and the nails of the Crucifixion. These she brought back to Rome. This alone made her a folk hero for a thousand years. Her relics proliferated through the Middle Ages, until splinters of that cross were traded across all Europe.

Helena herself became an artefact for the church in Venice. Her remains were reportedly stolen from Constantinople in 1211 by a monk and carried back to Venice. A side chapel was added to the church for veneration of the sainted mother. It’s still there. There is a glass case under the altar with the shape of a body inside, in gowns and a silver mask. What is under those gowns is an open question, as legends about the body piracy speak of an urn. (Sailors found themselves repeatedly run aground near the island that is home to Sant’ Elena. Only by unloading the urn could they escape. She had found her home.)

It’s a pleasant enough resting place. It’s very peaceful. There were very few visitors on the day I chanced upon the church, and they were as careful to be quiet as I was. There’s something about the place that encourages reverence. You sense the age of the place. The walls are weathered and bare. Much of the adornment for these walls has been moved to museums. Part of the cloisters remain, outside the door opposite Helena’s chapel. It feels like a ruin, but one lived in. There are benches. There are potted plants. It’s a nice place to sit n a hot day. It’s a rare place of rest in Venice.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Travelogue 801 – May 5
Walking Sketch
Part One


The seasons have turned here in the north. I arrived back in the Netherlands, and it was raining. I had lost my jacket during the trip, and so I was victim to the chill and the fat drops of spring rain. I couldn’t have scripted it better. The transition was perfect.

This morning, though, the sun is bright, and I have no need of a jacket. As I coast down the hill on my bike, down the far side of the bridge over the Schie, I pass the micro-grove of trees between roadways, where only a few weeks ago the cherry blossoms had been in glorious bloom. Now there are no flowers, but thick foliage. In a matter of a few short weeks, the trees have full bodies of leaves.

I’m put in mind of the wisteria petals and the strong sun of Italia. I had been looking for a place to stop on my trek east along the Riva degli Schiavona. I had made it as far as the Giardini della Biennale, a very Italian public park, walled off and dotted with statues of nineteenth-century heroes. I could have sat in the grass, but it would have meant foregoing any nourishment, and I had been doing that for hours. Finally, I spotted a café set next to the boardwalk.

I sat at a patio table lagoon-side, with only the patio wall separating me from the Riva. The slanted roof of corrugated iron didn’t shield me from the sun. Neither did the trellis and climbing wisteria. The warm light fell across my lap, fell across the pages of the history of Venice. The pink petals dropped onto the pages, and every so often I had to sweep them away.

Sated and rested, warmed by the sun, I left the garden behind. I was drawn to see the eastern frontier of the island city. I discovered that farther east, the city’s original nature asserted itself, its nature as a confederation of isles. At its farthest reaches, several isles are held to the commune only by a few bridges, trailing behind like seaweed caught on a fish’s tail. And as superfluous as the extra isles seem, they have strong claims in Venetian history. Take San Pietro di Castello, for example. Though the current basilica dates to the sixteenth century, there has been a church on that little isle since Venice was nothing more than small islands in the marshes and Venetians only refugees, farmers and fishermen.

I let curiosity guide me. Past the gardens, I found only quiet neighbourhoods. The gaudy wealth of old Venice had been overtaken by the mundane. The housing was humble. The tourist crowds had dwindled. In their stead, in the park that curved along the furthest edge of the island, local teens were playing ball, local parents were walking their infants and their dogs. And my pace slowed to that of a weekend stroll. I was enjoying the peace.

Finally, there was only a military campus, forbidden to civilians. I turned to follow the canal. Past the military compound, there was one final bridge, crossing to the easternmost island. The place was so quiet, I doubted myself. But I followed the path toward what was clearly a church ahead.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Travelogue 800 – April 30
A Sketch
Part Two


One side of the campo is set with ageing buildings that house the neighbourhood’s little bars. The other side is set with the medieval church. In between, the children run and yell. A few of the boys have gotten their hands on a baseball and glove. One boy is shouting out instructions to the mysterious game, running three bases in the wrong direction.

One of the boys belongs to a couple sitting at a nearby table. He’s younger than the others. He might be four or five. The father looks Japanese. He and his wife seem to trade off between English, Spanish and Italian. The boy is suddenly forlorn, standing alone in the square and crying. The father just smiles. I measure my own likely response – to run to the child – against his serenity, and I can’t say which is right. The boy makes his way slowly to the father, and the father picks him up.

Later I encounter the father inside the bar, waiting for his drinks. I tell him his boy is very cute. He smiles and thanks me, but doesn’t look me in the eye,

Past the father’s seat outside, I have a view of the right side of the campo. The closest building there is one of those square medieval towers I enjoy, raised in dark brick and set asymmetrically with small arched windows that might climb with an internal staircase. Set somewhat randomly in the wall is a white medallion depicting a Madonna with child.

Next to the tower is a humble bit of Renaissance architecture, rectangular windows set in regular order in a field of plaster once painted lime green. This building also has small white medallions, though these are placed with mathematical regularity and feature allegorical or purely decorative themes.

Turning one corner of the campo, we encounter the church opposite. And further along, after crossing an alleyway that enters the square, there is an unremarkable building, more modern, distinguished only by its maroon colouring, a building that reminds me for some reason of Rome, of the miles of apartment buildings in the southern stretches of the city.

The other side of the campo seems to be the upscale side. There is pretty bit of Perugian pink, with mullioned windows and lovely balcony. The building now houses a hotel. Next to it is something yellow that seems more seventeenth or eighteenth century, with inscriptions on tablets on the second floor, under modest curving gables. The first floor, with its balcony white French windows, seems to weigh heavily on the plain ground floor. The building sags on one side, as though weary.

This is Venice, city of campos. Only a few short blocks from crowds of tourists on the Riva degli Schiavona, we are enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon. The tourists are taking in the dramatic view of the Palazzo Ducale, the Salute, and San Giorgio Maggiore, monuments on three spurs of land in the Venetian lagoon. Here, families are having drinks and chatting. There is no drama.

There are a few drops of rain, and the children run toward shelter. The owner of the café comes out and stands beside me to crank open the awning. I move a few inches for shelter, lazy enough to suffer some light rain rather than move. The rain doesn’t last long. But the spell is broken. The children have gone.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Travelogue 799 – April 29
A Sketch
Part One


I’m composing a sketch, taking notes about the campo. Campo means field, and originally this town square was a field. The campo was one of the essential elements in the consolidation of this city in its early history. Every community needed a parish church. The church required a field, and the field a well. Communities thus established grew and met each other, merging into one city.

I’m spending a few hours of my last evening in the city at an outdoor table in this campo, drinking Campari spritzes and reading a lengthy history of the city. Across the campo is the founding church of the community, the church of San Giovanni Battista in Bragora. It’s a modest church, its facade a simple, three-part brick arch. The central section features a rose window of no dramatic beauty. No single feature of the old church is impressive, but the whole is beautiful. It could be the tone of the old brick. It could be the simple bell tower behind it. It’s hardly a tower. It’s more of a high wall with three open arches for the bells. It’s a modest church in a city of grandeur.

The church dates to when this little community was an island. All this part of the city was a broken set of marshes and islands. The island was settled. A church was built, a well sunk, a field cleared, and houses built for the new families. Everyone was a refugee of sorts, fleeing the waves of invasion that characterized the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The building that houses my café faces the old church. It has a shabby air about it. It has felt the hand of Time. Above and behind us are pinkish walls of peeling paint and plaster and sad balconies, outlined by bell-shaped railings.

I share the few café tables with local families. They all have children. Some are crying in their carriages, Others are playing in the square. There are several dozen children out there, running after footballs and shouting. A few fathers and grandfathers play along, chasing the balls, kicking them, or blocking imaginary goals. It’s Sunday, and it feels like timeless tradition.

Between the café and the church lies the campo, laid with uneven grey flagstones, flagstones to judge by their state that must be generations old. In the square is the white cistern head, familiar to every campo in town. There is one tree with benches underneath. And a war memorial with a flag pole.

The campo is no longer named for the church, but for several patriots who died for Italy in the nineteenth century. In a concession to the city, so many times older than the modern state, the signpost painted onto one campo wall uses both old and new names.

The church is humble and doesn’t beg any recognition. Its self-effacing silence – underscored by the weeds growing from the high brickwork and by the chipped stone in the tower’s pediment – is appealing. It has a kind of early Christian sensibility. The ornament at the top of the central section could almost be a dove.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Travelogue 798 – April 16
The Butterfly with Feathers
Part Two


It’s mid-scene, and I’m exiting the stage. The lights go out, and I stumble. One actor is left onstage, and the scene is supposed to go on. The lights come back on as I reach the curtain. The actor picks up with his lines.

I only had ninety minutes to confer with the technician, to set lights and to run through light and sound cues. This is the reality in small-time theatre. There are going to be mistakes. And every one of our four performances is in a different venue, so this will happen every time but with different and unpredictable mistakes.

Offstage, Maria helps me with a costume change. ‘Backstage’ is simply the rest of the café. I’m changing pants, but no one is paying attention. Actors backstage pace and mumble like extras in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, too focused on their next entrance to notice what anyone else is doing. Maria very sweetly wipes my brow for me. I had forgotten how hot those stage lights are. Sweat has been trickling down to my collar.

During a short monologue, an audience member abruptly stands and rushes off stage. The way to the café – and the toilet - leads across stage. I stutter and hesitate. I drop a line. I recover, but the performance feels marred. An actor shouldn’t let anything get to him.

Performance time flies. The show is over before I’ve found the moment to place myself: this is the premiere of two new plays. It’s the culmination of months of work. There is too much to process, so much to do to make the simplest play start on time, that there is too little space for enjoyment. Performance is a pinpoint of time.

Maybe that’s why theatre people return again and again to the scene of something essentially insane, the enactment of absurd lyrics, jotted down like notes from dreams recorded in bars and Metro stations, each scene an orchestration of chaos. We return to try again to be present during these rare and fleeting experiences.

We blink, and the show is over. We pat each other on the backs. We leave the green room to join our audience in the café. I’m handed a glass of wine, and I’m grateful for the timely tether to earthly things. I’m not really an actor so these rituals are disorienting.

I’m still disoriented, days later. Opening night is a type of magical rite, and I’m recovering. How do the remaining performances go? Will it be more routine the second time, just taking care of business? Will I have a cooler head and be more present? Or will time still resolutely race, while I find different mistakes to make? After all the shows are done, will I have memories of stilled motion, images of heightened moments? Or will the experience resist and remain a blur?

I’m sitting quietly. Another type of performance begins in an hour. I have a class to teach. I’m watching the street outside. It’s a bright spring day, and I can see the delight on many faces.

Life is a set of projects. That’s how we moderns live. And each project has its key moment, the performance, the result. Conventional wisdom has it that life is about the long intervals in between performance points. That’s obvious. That’s comforting. But where’s our philosophy of performance? In a society driven to reality TV, extreme sports, and extreme politics, where’s our understanding of the moment when the stage lights are raised?