Friday, July 27, 2012

Travelogue – glorious antiphonal brass

Wednesday, July 25

I'm sitting in the laundromat, so yeah, the hotel desk clerk yesterday evening was correct in giving me the location. The stained shirt I wore today wasn't so bad. Most of the stain is below the belt, the rest hidden by my arm.

I've noticed a few things about this city of Venice and the people here.

Green plants in public places are rare. Nearly all the time the pavement of the street stretches from building to building with no green landscaping to soften the joint between street and building. There are some plants, most in tubs or flower boxes hanging from the sides of buildings or on the railings around a restaurant's outside tables. What is rare is for the pavement to be interrupted for shrubs or trees (though there is one tree in the small plaza near my hotel).

There are green oases in private spaces, such as a courtyard or fenced yard. There are also occasional public parks with flowers, shrubs, and trees. Other than that, very little. Now that I've thought about it. I don't think I've seen a squirrel. I have seen lots of birds, especially pigeons around St. Mark's Plaza.

I've mentioned I keep close tabs of where I am on the map in my guidebook. Today I noticed how few other people are walking around with maps in hand. They couldn't all be locals. That was reinforced by someone asking me for directions. He was American and hoped I was local. What I had was almost as good – I whipped out my map. We happened to be close to my hotel, so I could easily point him in the right direction, even without a map. When I asked he said he normally just walks in the general direction and usually gets to where he wants to go. That reminded me that there are signs that mark the route to the major tourist areas (and the signs reproduced on t-shirts). It is easy to spot “Per San Marco” on the side of a building and follow the arrow.

Walking through the narrow streets one doesn't get much of a view of the sky. I can see what is overhead, but I didn't see much of yesterday's sunset and wouldn't see much of approaching storms. I mention that last part because yesterday was overcast and a couple times I could see a good chunk of sky it did look threatening. Which reminds me... weather in Venice has been pleasantly warm, not hot. There is a bit of humidity that is noticeable when leaving an air conditioned building. I haven't yet seen rain on this vacation.

I've seen a few restaurant menu signs that give as much prominence to Russian and Japanese as to English, French, and German and even one sign that gave more.

There aren't many public places to sit. There are lots of tables and chairs in plazas, but these are owned by restaurants for their customers. But benches to allow anyone to sit are rare.

On to the events of the day.

I got in line for St. Mark's Cathedral a bit after 10:30. It was a half-hour later when I got inside. Alas, no shortcuts possible. As my guidebook suggested I first went to the museum upstairs. It has displays about the restoration work that has been done (this place is old! several hundred years older than the current St. Peter's in Rome). There are also views across the nave inside and the plaza outside.

The soundtrack for this visit is any one of the antiphonal brass pieces written by Giovanni Gabrielli. I stood in the balcony overlooking the nave and could hear one of them in my head. I think Giovanni inherited the post of master of the church music from his uncle and this is where he did much of his composing. There are two narrow balconies on either side of the nave and Giovanni could put a handful of brass players in each one and have the music bounce back and forth between the two. I suppose it is possible he could have instead put musicians in the balconies at the ends of the transepts, though that was probably too far apart for good ensemble playing. Either way the sound would have been glorious (which was the point).

St. Marks is old enough that there was a lot of influence from Constantinople when it was built. This place has a far different look than St. Peter's or other churches I've seen. There are a lot of Eastern details. Another big difference is because it is so old the decorations are mosaics, not statues or paintings. The five domes of the ceiling and much of the walls are covered in mosaic with the space between figures in gold. My first thought was to describe all these golden mosaics as beautiful. Alas, they also tell a story of a dominating power working to hold onto its position.

I wasn't allowed to take photos in the church, so here is one of the exterior.

After lunch I thought of going up the bell tower, but the line was long and one long line a day is enough. Instead I headed across the Grand Canal to the Gallerie Accademia. An art school was founded here so the gallery holds a lot of fine work for the students to study. Alas, it was all more of the late Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque stuff I've been seeing for the last two weeks. Saints and Madonnas all over the place. Some of the iconography could get a bit weird – there was no way a saint from the Middle Ages could actually have been seen with an infant Jesus. My favorite painting (or at least the idea for it – much was hidden by restoration work) was one depicting the Last Supper. The artist included all kinds of other people – those from the lower classes, dwarves, and various unsavory types. The Inquisition strongly objected. The artist (alas I forget who) didn't change the painting. He simply renamed it to something like “Feast Day.” I like his thinking.

From there I took the antidote and visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. She became an avid collector in the 1920s and quite active in the 1940s. After exhibiting her collection in various places, she bought this building beside the Grand Canal and installed all those works she owned. There are several Picassos, several Jackson Pollocks, and at least one from the major Cubists, Expressionists, and Surrealists of the time (Salvador Dali included). The photo is of the headboard that Alexander Calder made for Peggy's bed.

When that place closed for the day I followed the Grand Canal out to its mouth with a good view of the Bell Tower and Ducal Palace. Then I walked along the far side of that district. It was rather strange to see a big cruise ship go by, quite out of scale of everything around it (and this was much smaller than the cruise ship I was on several years ago).

I had supper at a restaurant close to my hotel. The service was rather slow (which is why I'm waiting for the dryer after 10:30 at night). I tried a “one plate meal” of pasta and meatballs. The taste was pretty good, though the meatballs were fried and there wasn't nearly enough protein for my needs. I left about half the pasta on my plate, prompting the waitress to wonder if I liked it. I'll go back to my standard meat dishes tomorrow. I ordered a mixed salad to go with the pasta. It had carrots and lots of different kinds of lettuce.

Ha! I made it all the way back to my hotel without consulting my map! Of course, I was merely retracing my steps.

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