Sunday, December 5, 2010


"In certain light-suffused mists, Venice deconstructs herself.  One sees faint smears of silhouettes, and in these the architect's early sketches:  the skeletons of the palazzi as he saw them on paper when they were only dreams.  When the haze lifts, those buildings swell again with substance, as if freshly built.  But until that happens the Venetians nose their way around their city." Michelle Lovric from The Floating Book.

I started reading Lovric's book while in Venice and this first paragraph from chapter one couldn't be more perfect.  Lovric must have inhabited the same Venice I did as she sketched this word portrait of a very complicated city.  We arrived in Venice via the train while it was dark, so our initial reaction was muted and confusing as we tried to manuever all our luggage through the cobblestone streets to find our hotel.  It was chilly but in such a delicious non-Middle East way that I couldn't help but drink in the rain soaked walls and cafe tables.  We stayed at the Bonvecchiati Hotel and it was old-world stylish with a dampness all its own.  I don't think any hotel in that city can escape the moisture that keeps the city afloat.  Our first meal in Venice was at the Hard Rock Cafe - lame, huh - but if you can believe it, we were ready for a burger by the fourth day in Italy.  Brett had to register for his conference early in the morning so we hit the sack and saved the wonders of this new city for the sunshine.

I can't even begin to tell you all about the history, the art, the people, and the experience of Venezia.  For the first day Brett, Abbey, and I felt like we were on a never-ending Disney ride with more authentic scenes every minute.  By the third day though we could see beneath the showy veneer to the less than perfect side of Venice - the rude waiters, the not-so-honest street vendors, and the polluted water ways. But in a way, that made the city finally come alive in my eyes.  It wasn't Pirates of the Carribean after all - thank goodness!  I could go to California to see pasted on smiles and automated perfection. 

Even though San Marco Square was flooded that first morning, there was a handy portable boardwalk system that had been set up so we could still walk through the most interesting parts of the city.  By 11AM though, the water had subsided and the square was covered with pigeons and people.  The cloudy sky parted just in time for us to ride the elevator to the top of The Campanile or bell tower and we caught our first breathless sights of the most unique city in the world - a city of islands and stone that continues to fend off the rising tide with science and providence.  It used to be a 10th-century lighthouse until 1902 when it toppled into the center of the piazza.  It was rebuilt and we are so glad it was. 

Here's Brett setting such a good example, as always.  Truthfully, I was the one who asked him to touch the bell for the picture.  Then we saw the sign.  Ooops!

It was difficult to leave our bird's eye view to start getting to know the city on its own level.  Let me just say, Venice is much more sparkly from this perspective.  The pushy people, the dead rat, relentless pigeons, and crowded streets were less picturesque up close.

St. Mark's Basilica was gawdy, to say the least, but had a great mix of East and West as far as architecture, and that is why Brett loved it.  Goethe said that this church "can only be compared with itself." And I believe it because there is nothing like it anywhere in the world, kind of like Venice itself.

The Clock Tower, which is also in the square and was built in 1496, is unique as well.  It has two bronze "Moors" (they only gained their ethnicity after the metal darkened over the years) standing on top and on the hour they swing their metal clappers.  I guess in the 17th century one of the metallic Moors knocked a worker to his death - probably the first ever killing by a robot.  Where was Will Smith when they needed him?  Clearly, the mechanical giant got away with it and continues to mark each hour in San Marco Piazza.

"Having a picnic" is a big NO! NO! in Venice, so because we didn't want to pay outrageous prices for a sit-down meal, we paid way too much for a standing up one (like in the picture above) or a meal on the run.  Ridiculous, right?  The last day we were there Abbey and I bought gelato at an open-air cafe and thought we would just sit down and enjoy it while watching the beautiful scenery.  As soon as I put all our packages down I was told, "Madam, it is not allowed for you to sit." When I pointed to the gelato counter I just purchased from he said, "No, that is a different price." Now let's just say there were hundreds of people waiting to sit down for lunch . . well, I would have understood.  But as it was, there were only three tables filled out of about eighty and not a soul waiting to be seated.  I was kind of growly after that about Venetian hospitality.  It was a good thing we were leaving. 

After exploring the San Marco Piazza area we took a walking tour and saw some interesting things.  Here is just a sample:

Here are two contrasting buildings.  The beautiful church is San Mois√® Church where the St. Mark's community actually worships.  It is one of Venice's oldest churches, dating from the 10th century.  The ugly modern building on the right is the former Venice headquarters of the Nazis during Worl War II - creepy, right?

Venice is all about costume and masquerade.  Some of the most beautiful costumes and masks I have ever seen were here.

Here was my prize for the most well-designed store.  Venice is a place to buy stationery and here is a top-of-the-line place to buy it.  I later complimented the store owner and told her how impressive her store design is.  She was very humble and smiled while she probably wondered why I didn't just buy something.
The Leaning Tower of Santo Stefano and some leaning gelato eaters - maybe they've had too much . . . . naw . . .
 A hidden Venice treasure:  Scala Contraini del Bovolo built in 1499 - the external staircase of a palace
 There was a protest by university students about Italy's budget cuts.

Brett and his love of hats . . . gloves . .  . scarves . . . . coats .  . stationery and office supplies . . .Wait a minute!  Venice really is his town.
When we reached the Rialto Bridge we hopped on a Vaporetto (Venice's mass transit system) and had a beautiful tour of the Grand Canal.

Here is the Constitution Bridge designed by the world famous Santiago Calatrava.  Brett was pretty excited to see this.  It seems kind of out of place with Venice's ancient landscape, but it is still very beautiful.  Venetians aren't too fond of the over-budget bridge - 4 million originally and then went to 11 million.  Even though the design is close to the old style with a low-arch, shallow stair steps, and local Istrian stone, the fact that it is not wheelchair accessible and somewhat questionable on stability makes it a sore topic.

This pink house was Mozart's villa when he lived in Venice.  Can't you just hear the genius notes floating under the bridge and over the water?
The mayor says of a billboard like this one close to the Doge's Palace:  "It's not beautiful'.  It's not ugly.  It's necessary."  In other words, they will do anything for cash. 

So in between all the site seeing, Brett had responsibilities at the conference.  He got in on some good presentations and prepared for delivering his research paper entitled, "The Voice of Place:  The Role of the Built Environment in Bridging Cultural Gaps." He was scheduled to present last - late afternoon on Friday so we decided that morning was our best opportunity for a traditional gondola ride.  It was a once in a lifetime experience, and you can't say you have been to Venice unless you hire the striped shirt gondolier and glide through the thick Venetian water in the most unique black boat ever. 

We kept asking Mossimo if he would show us the villa where The Italian Job was filmed - you know the one where they drop all those gold bars through two floor levels into the water garage and sneak it away with scuba gear under the water while a high speed boat chase is going on?  He told us it was too far across the town to take us but seemed to know what we were talking about.  I guess we weren't the first silly Americans to ask him that question.

The original plan was that Abbey and I would attend Brett's conference session so we could see his presentation, video tape it, and give him a much deserved standing ovation, but in order to attend we would have had to register for the very expensive conference.  So Abbey and I entertained ourselves by touring the Doge's Palace while Brett finished up.

Doge (pronounced dohzh) is the Italian word for Duke and was more like an elected king.  This is where the head honcho lived and worked in Venice when it was the "it" city of Europe for 400 years (1150-1550).  The building is graceful and understated, for a palace, but the intricate details of the building make it remarkable.  To be honest, I didn't read much of the literature about this site because we were so exhausted and had soaked in as much culture as possible.  The tour provided us with close, free restrooms and a place to sit down for a long time.  Now that is pathetic, that we were more interested in resting than taking in our surroundings.  I hope Venetians will forgive us someday.  It was a beautiful rest area though!

This beautiful Titian painting is hiding in a stairway and was painted in three days.  It is St. Christopher carrying the Christ child across the lagoon.  There was a myth that if you looked at St. Christopher, you wouldn't die that day.  I totally believe it because I didn't die that day and neither did Abbey.  Whewwww!
The Golden Staircase is a 24 -karat gilded ceiling staircase and was part of the big propaganda machine to impress visitors to the palace.
These speckled floors are all over the city.  They look like cheap linoleum but they are historic and protected by the government.  The local landlords hate them because of the maintainence they require.  As Venice was built, it needed flexible flooring to absorb the settling of the buildings.  It is made of several layers of built up material and then finished with a broken marble top that is shaved and polished.  Just another gem for my architect husband.

Exterior shot of the enclosed Bridge of Sighs that connects two wings of the Doge's Palace - it is surrounded by scaffolding for restoration work.  This bridge was romanticized in the 19th century when the stories circulated of condemned men being led over this bridge on their way to prison and taking one last look through these small windows at the glory of Venice, and sighing.
Interior shot of the window
 As you can see, there isn't much of a view, but the little bit of blue sky and water gave the prisoners something to savor until the noose.
 Here Abbey walks down the stairs to the prisons from the Bridge of Sighs.

The Stairway of Giants with Neptune and Mars at the top - the palace is attached to the church, symbolically connecting church and state in this government.
This is Bianca (made by Abbey's sister Kristy) and she has seen some really amazing sites for a doll.  We thought that since she has a very Italian name she should have her picture taken in this exotic place.
So with the setting sun came our exit from Venice for a long train ride back to Rome.  Brett did a great job on his presentation and had some good feedback from architects from around the world.  We said our good byes to . . .

. . . . the Murano Glass

  . . . . the winged lions and surly crowds

. . . . and a random bare-chested model.

The train carried us away but our thoughts still float around those darkened canals and remember the beauty of a damp few days in northern Italy.


Kristy said...

Oh wow, all of this is so amazing!

Richardson Five said...

WOW!!! You guys are the luckiest people I know! How awesome! Merry Christmas! We love you all. XOXOX Heather

adrienne said...

Oh, I loved Venice and all its seedy, untidy, perfect imperfection!

(didn't love the crowds or the pigeons)

Marinda said...

Oh how fascinating! You took some great pictures! It is still hard for me to imagine this is a real place!

Jan.lyons said...

You picked the perfect time of the year to go to Venice. In July the rats are bad and the smell...